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Plastics Clogging Our Oceans - September 4, 2016

                In 1997, Captain Charles Moore made a startling discovery; millions of pieces of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. These plastic pieces, along with other floating debris, form the Eastern Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. The Eastern Garbage Patch, along with the Western Garbage Patch near Japan, comprises the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex. 

                 These garbage patches are formed by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a system of circular ocean currents. Due to the nature of the gyre, debris and trash from around the ocean are pulled into these garbage patches. The centers of gyres tend to be calm and thus the debris tends to accumulate there.

                 The northern Pacific is not the only place oceanic garbage patches can be found. Garbage patches are forming in the five major ocean gyres; in addition to the North Pacific gyre, there is the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, South Pacific, and Indian gyre where trash is accumulating. The Sargasso Sea, which is located in the North Atlantic gyre, and even smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea, are also forming their own garbage patches. 

                The common misconception is that these garbage patches are solid islands of floating trash. In truth, they consist of billions of tiny plastic pieces called microplastics. Plastic is not biodegradable so as it ages it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, turning one large piece of plastic into many fragments. Larger debris, like fishing nets, buoys, and tires are still present in the patches though. 

                Now, what is the problem with all this trash and plastic? For one, the sheer number and amount of trash is alarming. There are about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean and about 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters the oceans each year. Some of this plastic remains at the surface but the heavier plastic sinks deep in the ocean or even to the ocean bottom, where it can damage fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs. In addition to larger debris, microfibers of plastic are also accumulating on coral colonies, affecting their digestive systems. 

                 Debris can also be mistaken as food by marine animals. Sea turtles can mistake plastic bags and balloons for jellyfish; their preferred food source. Birds, like albatrosses, can mistake small plastic pieces for fish eggs and feed them to their chicks. There is some debate about the effect the plastic has on the chicks. It is widely thought that the plastics fill up their stomachs and cause the chicks to starve. Earlier this year, beached sperm whales were found to have a 13-meter shrimp fishing net, a plastic car engine cover, and the remnants of a plastic bucket in their stomachs.

                 Chemicals in the plastic are also proving to be an issue. Plastics absorb chemicals like PCB and DDT and concentrate these chemicals in fatty tissue. In addition to absorbing some chemicals, plastics also leach out toxins present in the actual plastic such as phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and organotins. As animals eat these plastics, the chemicals and toxins enter the food web. These chemicals and toxins bioaccumulate or build up in fatty tissues of marine animals, especially those at the top of the food web. As we eat these animals, the chemicals could potentially be building up in humans as well.  

                Larger debris such as fishing nets poses a threat to marine life as well. It is estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals, sea turtles, and other marine animals become entangled in these nets each year and drown in what is known as “ghost fishing”. Even if the animal escapes the netting, they can still be cut or slowed down by nets wrapped around them. About 700,000 tons of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is fishing nets. 

                 One of the best ways to reduce the amount of plastic that is entering our oceans is to reduce the amount used and to participate in clean-up efforts. Simple efforts such as using a reusable grocery bag or water bottle can greatly reduce the amount of plastic used on a daily basis. Avoiding facial washes and other personal care products that use plastic microbeads can also reduce the amount of plastics entering our waterways. Recycling and the proper disposal of waste are necessary to help reduce the amount of plastic trash. 

                 International Coast Day Cleanup, organized by the Ocean Conservancy, is an annual clean up event that is working to reduce the amount of debris in the oceans. Last year’s clean-up efforts removed over 18 million pounds of trash from shorelines around the world. Volunteers can participate in this year’s Coast Day Cleanup on Saturday, September 10th starting at 10 a.m. at the Ocean City Town Hall on 3rd Street. 

                Another clean up opportunity in the Coastal Bays, is the Cruzan the Bay Environmental Clean Up Day on Tuesday, September 13th from 12:30 to 5:00. The event is sponsored by Cruzan Rum to help benefit the Maryland Coastal Bays Program and Ocean City Surf Club. After the clean-up, Cruzan Rum is hosting an after party with food and prizes at Fish Tales. Participants must be over 21 to register for this event.

                For more information on these events and how to participate, contact Sandi Smith at 410-213-2297 ext. 106 or at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org.  

 

Katherine Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 

 



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