An Ocean of Plastic

I read a startling prediction the other day. By 2025 it is estimated that the world’s oceans will contain 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonnes of fish, and by 2050 the accumulated plastic may well outweigh the fish1.

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Beach strewn with plastic debris in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / CC BY

Of course these figures are rough predictions that assume current trends continue, but despite the uncertainty, it’s indisputable that a tremendous amount of plastic is entering the oceans.

This plastic can have deadly consequences for aquatic life. A big conservation problem facing turtles for example is that they eat floating carrier bags, which they mistake for their jellyfish prey. Plastic can also get caught around the necks and limbs of sea creatures, cutting into flesh and often killing the animal as it grows.

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A gannet with plastic caught on its bill. Photo by Bo Eide / CC BY

Overtime plastic debris breakdown into microscopic particles that accumulate in ocean gyres or rain down upon the sea bed. The impact of these microparticles is hardly understood, but there is no doubt that they are infiltrating almost every part of the marine environment including the fish we eat.

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Very sad that some sea birds inadvertently kill their own offspring by feeding them plastic, as the parents of this albatross chick must have done. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service / CC BY

While the greatest inputs of rubbish into the oceans generally come from poor countries that have inadequate systems for dealing with waste, you only need to take a look at the detritus dumped by the River Don after high flows to appreciate that we British are very much part of the problem. Just last month an autopsy on a Cuvier’s beaked whale that had died off the coast of Norway found 30 plastic carrier bags in its gut, which probably caused its death2. Tellingly, labelling on the plastic contents of its stomach was largely in Danish and English.

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Even a fish as sleek as a salmon can fall victim to rubbish. Photo by Caz VanDevere / CC BY

The sad story of the whale and alarming predictions made me realise that I have underestimating the importance of the river cleanup work that the Trust has been doing. I had tended to focus only on the aesthetic improvements, which is very important in making riverside spaces pleasant places for local communities, and a good enough reason alone to clear up rubbish. But next time I see the bags of rubbish collected by Trust staff and volunteers I will feel doubly satisfied to know that waste won’t end up harming river or marine life.

If you are interested in volunteering with the Trust see our Get Involved Page.

1http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf

2http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/03/whale-found-dying-coast-norway-30-plastic-bags-stomach/

Ed Shaw

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