Plastic bags that look like jellyfish. Six-pack rings that trap helpless birds. Fishing gear that surrounds helpless whales. Small plastic pellets that clog the intestines of marine birds and mammals. These are just some of the items floating in the ocean that endanger all marine life forms every day.
Marine debris is a serious problem in all parts of the ocean. There are areas in the North Atlantic and Pacific oceans where large quantities of plastics have accumulated. Marine animals ranging in size from microscopic zooplankton to the great whales can be harmed by this debris. Some plastic can float on the surface of the water for hundreds of years. It has been estimated that more than fourteen billion pounds of trash are dumped into the ocean every year.
What does this trash look like? Just join one of the many beach clean-ups around Earth Day in April and you can begin to understand the significance of this problem. Accumulating on beaches, dunes, and marshes are countless cigarette butts, plastic lids and cups, food bags, styrofoam products, metal cans, and plastic bottles. These affect thousands of pelagic birds, turtles, seals and whales. The mono-filament fish lines entangle large mammals, cutting into their skin, causing infections, and reducing their ability to feed. Many drown from exhaustion due to their futile efforts to remove the plastic.
Where dies the trash come from? The major source is the United States as trash gets dumped from boats or blows into coastal waters from land. Itís hard to imagine why anyone would deliberately dump plastics overboard, or leave their trash in the sand, but the sad truth is that it happens quite often. It is illegal to dump trash in American waters, but you can imagine the difficulty in enforcing this ban.
Education and conservation seem to be the answers to this problem. Many people are unaware that these products can do much harm, though that is changing. Because of national efforts such as Coastweeks in the fall, there is some evidence that plastic pollution is beginning to decline. This has to be a continuous ongoing effort. With so many consumer products consisting of plastic pieces, including excessive wrapping, it is necessary to embark on educational campaigns on their proper use and disposal.
Another important step that can be taken is to simply reduce the amount of plastic consumed. Most plastics can be recycled which has the added benefit of reducing fossil fuel consumption as they are all products of petroleum. If each of us carefully considers what we consume and try to eliminate many plastics from our lives, this will help protect these threatened animals.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.