Plastic Oceans by Dr Mark Simmonds
Marine debris is a rather clinical term for something rather disgusting. Wherever you go in the world, whatever seashore you may be walking along, you find evidence of our wasteful society cast up. When I was growing up (and I was lucky enough to do so in a seaside town), inshore pollution concerns focused on sewage contamination; but at least sewage has the good grace to eventually rot down. Not so all the plastics that escape into the sea. They may be eroded into smaller pieces but now it is clear that even those smaller pieces are also a threat and can be transferred inside the bodies of marine animals with as yet not fully-characterised consequences. The larger pieces can ensnare animals and some is also swallowed by them which can cause blockages and death.
A walk by the sea is now tainted by the persistent rubbish washed up. I am not sure how we can expect people to value the coastal zone (or indeed the sea more generally) if their experience of it is similar to a visit to a rubbish tip. Of course, the degree of contamination varies geographically and also relates to whether a shore is cleaned. On my travels last year, I found that the Pacific shores of New Zealand had relatively little debris, whereas some beaches in South Korea (likely partly as a result of the terrible tsunami event in Japan) had heavy loads and here teams of uniformed men were hard at work bagging up and removing rubbish. But perhaps most striking to me was when I went to look at the seal breeding colony on Barsdey Island in North Wales, it looked like a children’s party had just taken place. The main breeding area was ‘decorated’ with balloons which must have blown from the adjacent mainland and then snagged in the ropes. And then when I looked closer I could see that the seals were giving birth surrounded by various other plastic items, including some fishing nets. Lost and discarded nets obviously pose the threat of entanglement for seals and out on the rocks I could see one adult with a characteristic noose cutting into its neck. I say characteristic because pretty much whatever seal or sea lion colony you look at these days there is one or more animals with this kind of chronic entanglement. The seal when younger was encountered some netting or some other entangling materials, managed to break free but has been left with some around its neck which, over time, comes to cut into its flesh as the animal grows.
We need to change our habits; re-use, carefully recycle and reclaim these dangerous materials from marine habitats.
Mark Simmonds is the Senior Marine Scientist working with the Humane Society International and a friend of Odyssea.