Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Polluted Pacific

After a loyal reader pointed me towards a recent NY Times article about the island-sized patches of garbage afloat in the Pacific Ocean, I realized that I must not have given this topic enough attention when I was reading Thomas Kostigen's chapter "Where the Currents Take Our Trash" in his book You Are Here this past spring.

We're talking about huge islands of trash floating in remote areas of our oceans, folks. Here's a sampling of what these toxic whirlpools consist of (some still in their original shapes and form, others broken down into tiny, confetti-seized pieces that are gobbles up by marine life):

Light bulbs, Tooth brushes, Plastic water bottles and caps, Glass, Pill bottles, Buoys and fish nets (more on this momentarily), Traffic cones, Plastic bags, Tires, Disposable lighters, Paper, Oil and oil cartons, Wood, Rope, Toys...

The patch  Lindsey Hoshaw explored for the Times is about 1,000 miles east of Hawaii and is said to be doubling in size every decade. It is one of five ocean areas where heavy currents and slack winds keep the trash swirling in a giant vortex known to experts as a gyre. The impact of these patches on marine life is tremendous. There is a passage from a portion of Kostigen's book looking at the growing number of animals endangered by ocean debris that really hits it home:

"[Dr. Marcus Eriksen, director of research and education aboard the Charles Moore's Alguita vessel that discovered the Eastern Garbage Patch] spent time on Midway Island examining the effect of trash on albatross. 'I found birds with syringes sticking out of their stomachs and toothbrushes caught in their mouths,' Marcus says. He explains that albatross have two stomachs: one where they store food to feed their young and another where they digest food for themselves; plastic filled both. When he arrived on Midway he was shown a series of Laysan albatross skeletons. 'Every single one had plastic in it. Every single one.'"

Scientists have identified more than 250 species known to have been injured or killed by this ocean debris and bear in mind: this is only one aspect of the problem. These dangers eventually make their way to us.

Let's start at the bottom. Plankton is the base of the marine food chain. The amount of plastic fragments in the central Pacific outweigh zooplankton sixfold.  Zooplankton are non-selective feeders and ingest anything small enough which is inevitably plastic. Then marine mammals feed on zooplankton and so forth up the chain. Our fate and the oceans' are certainly looking more and more parallel. I'll let Hoshaw take it from here:

"PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals cannot dissolve in water, but the plastic absorbs them like a sponge. Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles. Scientists from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat.

The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body."

If you can't picture it from words alone, I urge you to view the collection of photographs in this slide show from Hoshaw's visit to the patch with Charles Moore, the captain who came upon the patch in 1997 during the Transpacific Yacht Race and has dedicated his vessel to researching it since 1999. Keep in mind, the pictured patch is said to pale in comparison to the Western Garbage Patch, just south of Japan, that captures trash from Asia, Russia, India and the Malaysian Peninsula.

We're all in this together. What the what are we going to do!?

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