The planet’s oceans are under siege. Increasing acidification is joining forces with other climate change impacts such as warmer ocean water, melting ice cover and a decrease in oceanic oxygen to increasingly harm marine life. These are all big picture issues that are the result of large-scale environmental factors with human activity being one of those factors. But there is one issue facing the world’s oceans that is entirely a manmade problem – plastics infiltrating every level of marine life.
The problem is extremely wide scale with 8 million metric tons of plastic going into the ocean yearly per the Ocean Conservancy. All this plastic has made its way into sea life from plankton to blue whales, the largest living animal ever known to have existed. Plastics impact almost 700 ocean species, it’s been found in 60% of all seabirds and 100% of sea turtle species. Its presence in the oceanic food chain is important because it threatens the life of animals ingesting it – it negatively affects feeding efficiency, nutrient uptake and fitness in those animals.
The impact of oceanic plastic is one of six core tenets of EarthX’s Corporate Ocean Agenda:
The oceans are increasingly choking on plastic. There are microscopic pieces of plastic throughout the ocean that are becoming part of the ocean ecosystem. Scientists tell us that the volume of plastic in the ocean could equal the volume of fish in the ocean in a generation. We need to do something to reduce that plastic. Companies need to join in global effort to finance prevention of plastic and marine debris in our oceans.
“Our oceans today are under siege,” says Bill Shireman, president and CEO, Future 500. “They are sacred living systems. Their value is intrinsically infinite, but they also are important to human life. They are the source that humanity intends to use for 60% of our future protein. We have reasons to protect our oceans.”
How big is the problem? Over the 42 year period from 1970 to 2012, a 2015 report from the World Wildlife Fund found an almost 50% drop in marine life populations based on trends in 5,829 populations of 1,234 mammal, bird, reptile and fish species in the ocean. Among the heavily fished tuna and mackerel populations the decrease was even more dramatic at close to 75%.
For a visual representation of the issue, there’s no shortage of images of sea turtles caught in discarded plastics or dead and decaying fish or marine mammals trapped in abandoned fishing nets or tangled industrial-scale fishing lines.
And then there’s the oceanic gyres. A UNESCO fact sheet on ocean pollution devotes an entire factiod to the well-known floating trash islands: “Discarded plastics continue to be an issue for the world’s oceans and the North Pacific Gyre, also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where waste material from coastal areas including North America and Japan is joined in a mostly stationary area twice the size of Texas. There are five gyres in the oceans including the Pacific Garbage Patch.”
While massive floating islands of trash and dead sea life entangled in discarded fishing gear are easy to see, some of the most insidious plastic pollution takes form in microplastics – particles less than five millimeters in size.
Just one example of the impact of microplastics was reported in a November 2019 Marine Pollution Bulletin article titled, “Microplastics in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Eastern Beaufort Sea.” The research cited in the article found microplastics, with almost half identified as PET (polyethylene terephthalate), were found in the stomachs and intestines of the seven beluga whales harvested by Inuvialuit hunters and studied by scientists.
Another study published in November in Limnology and Oceanography Letters found the amount of microplastic in the ocean is one million times greater than previously estimated.
Not only are microplastics showing up in the bodies of sea life, the pollution has even been found at the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the Mariana Trench.
There is no simple fix to the problem of plastics in the ocean, but it is an issue to be aware of because as the oceans and marine life go, so goes life across our planet.
“Our oceans are living systems. They support us. We depend on them for our lives. If the oceans go, we go with them. But more than that, oceans support life. They are sacred in and of themselves,” says Future 500’s Shireman.