Plastic Ocean and Plastic Fish

In an earlier article we wrote about the Kyoto protocol and how it pretends to help to mitigate the climate change using several mechanisms to control the carbon dioxide emissions which lead to the heating of the earth’s atmosphere and thus to a rise of the levels of the oceans. However, it turned out that the whole protocol is governed by the economic interests of the developed countries and that there is no really ecologically oriented concern about the global heating. But carbon dioxide is not the only stuff produced by mankind that puts in danger the existence of a planet earth with an intact nature.

It is widely known that the oceans of the earth are getting polluted more and more, but not so many people know that plastic is one of the major dangers for sane oceans. Usually, people think that ships leaking crude oil or petroleum into the oceans are the main causes for ocean water pollution. While it is true, that one drop of crude oil is enough to spoil 50000 liters of water, there is also another considerable threat to the clean ocean water: plastic. 10 percent of the world’s plastic waste end up in the oceans, especially in the Pacific Ocean.

The waters of our oceans move in regular patterns. There are streams from America to Europe, for example. And there are circular streams, especially along the equator. These streams are relatively calm and are traps for plastic debris floating on the surface and building up huge masses. The most important of these masses of floating plastic has reached a size of two times the surface of the continental United States and is located in the Pacific Ocean. It is known as the Northern Pacific Gyre. There are four more gyres in the oceans of mother earth.

Unfortunately, the plastic does not remain as visible bags, bottles, lighters and other plastic items floating on the mere surface. The pieces get smaller and smaller until they are diminutive particles that fish and other species living in the oceans mistake for organic plankton. You will get a picture of the magnitude of the contamination when you consider that scientists estimate that in the Northern Pacific Gyre there are six kilos of plastic for every kilo of organic plankton. Once introduced in the food chain, the plastic moves up to larger species and eventually gets back to humans through the fish they consume.

Not all plastic has the same specific weight, which means that not all of it remains on the surface or close to it. The gyre in the Northern Pacific shows debris up to six meters below the surface. Other plastic debris does not float at all. It sinks to the ground of the oceans. According to dutch researchers, the floor of the North Sea is covered with roughly 600 thousand tonnes of plastic. Of course, the organisms living on the sea floors are also affected by this sinking debris.
On the other hand, the gyres attract “other damaging pollutants, such as persistent organic pollutants (POPs), hydrocarbons and DDT that have been dumped in the oceans”.

Many living organisms die due to the plastic debris which affects not only fish and marine mammals but also seabirds. According to estimations of the United Nations Environmental Programme or UNEP, over a million of seabirds and more than 100 000 marine mammals  die every year due to the ingestion of marine debris or because they get entangled in it. They have documented about 267 species that suffer the effects of the contamination of the world’s oceans caused by plastic produced by humans and thrown into the water. Among these species we find seals, sea lions, manatees, turtles and whales.

There are several sources for the contamination of the oceans with plastic, which can be classified as coming from land-based sources or ocean-based sources.
The major part of ocean contaminating plastic originates on the land. People who visit the beaches and shores leave food and beverage packagings, lighters and plastic toys behind them, while thunderstorms with heavy rain and consequent sewer overfloas conduct water contaminated with street litter, condoms and syringes into the oceans. This sums up an 80 percent of the plastic in the world’s seas, while the resting 20 percent is caused by garbage from ships and boats, including fishing related waste like fishing lines, fishing nets, fishing pots and strapping bands from bait boxes.

Same as with the carbon dioxide responsible for the pollution of the air and the greenhouse effect, the biggest part of the plastic debris in the oceans is produced in the industrialized countries.
The governments don’t talk much about this issue, they feel save because the gyres are located in international waters far away from their jurisdiction. And of course, the industry is interested primarily in profits and not in a sustainability, if it compromises the profits.

On the other hand, common folks can take action, buying products without or with less plastic packagings. Everybody should look for alternatives to plastic products whenever possible, since plastic does not only end up as contamination in the gyres of the oceans but has negative effects on the human health, such as endocrine disruption with subsequent risks to suffer cancers, immune system supression, developmental problems in children and birth defects.

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