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International Coast Day Clean-up - August 27, 2017

               In 1997, Captain Charles Moore made a startling discovery; millions of pieces of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean. These plastic pieces, along with other floating debris, form the Eastern Garbage Patch located between Hawaii and California. The Eastern Garbage Patch, along with the Western Garbage Patch near Japan, comprise the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex. 

                 These garbage patches are formed by the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is a system of circular currents in the Pacific Ocean. Due to the nature of the gyre, debris and trash from around the ocean are pulled into these garbage patches. The centers of gyres are calmer than the surrounding currents, so the debris tends to accumulate there.

                 There are five major ocean gyres: The North Atlantic, the South Atlantic, the South Pacific, and the Indian gyre, all of which have their own garbage patches. The Sargasso Sea, located in the North Atlantic gyre, and even smaller bodies of water, such as the North Sea, are also forming their own garbage patches. 

                The common misconception is that these garbage patches are solid islands of floating trash. In truth, they consist of billions of tiny plastic pieces, called microplastics, floating throughout the water column. Plastic is not biodegradable so as it ages it simply breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, turning one large piece of plastic into many fragments. However, larger debris like fishing nets, buoys, and tires are still present in the patches. 

                Now, what is the problem with all this trash and plastic? For one, the sheer amount of trash is alarming: There are about 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean and about 8 million metric tons of plastic debris enters the oceans each year. While some of this plastic remains at the surface, the heavier plastics sink below where they can damage fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs. In addition to the larger debris that can break the delicate corals, plastic microfibers can accumulate on the corals, affecting their digestive systems.

                 Debris can also be mistaken as food by many marine animals. Sea turtles can mistake plastic bags and balloons for jellyfish; their preferred food source. Birds, like albatrosses, can mistake small plastic pieces for fish eggs and feed them to their chicks. There is some debate about the effect the plastic has on the chicks, but it is widely thought that the plastics fill up their stomachs and cause the chicks to starve. Last year, four beached sperm whales were found containing man-made materials, including a 13-meter shrimp fishing net, a plastic car engine cover, and the remnants of a plastic bucket in their stomachs.

                 Chemicals in the plastic are also proving to be an issue. Plastics absorb and concentrate toxic organic chemicals like PCB and DDT, and leach out toxic compounds of their own, like phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), and organotins. As animals eat these plastics, the toxicants begin to bioaccumulate or build up in fatty tissues of marine animals, especially those at the top of the food web. When these animals are consumed by humans, those chemicals could potentially be building up in us as well.  

                Larger debris such as fishing nets poses a threat to marine life as well. It is estimated that over 100,000 marine mammals, sea turtles, and other marine species become entangled in these nets each year and drown in what is known as “ghost fishing”. Even if the animal escapes the netting, they can still be cut or slowed down by nets wrapped around them. Discarded fishing nets comprise about 700,000 tons of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

                 One of the best ways to reduce the amount of plastic that is entering our oceans is to reduce the amount used and to participate in clean-up efforts. Simple efforts such as using a reusable grocery bag or water bottle can greatly reduce the amount of plastic used on a daily basis. Avoiding facial washes, and other personal care products that use plastic scrubbing microbeads can also reduce the amount of plastics entering our waterways. Recycling and the proper disposal of waste are necessary to help reduce the amount of plastic trash. 

                 International Coast Day Cleanup, organized by the Ocean Conservancy, is an annual clean up event that is working to reduce the amount of debris in the oceans. Last year’s clean-up efforts removed almost 18.4 million pounds of trash from shorelines around the world. Volunteers can participate in this year’s Coast Day Cleanup on Saturday, September 9th starting at 10:00 a.m. at the Ocean City Town Hall on 3rd Street. For more information on this event and how to participate, contact Sandi Smith at 410-213-2297 ext. 106 or at sandis@mdcoastalbays.org.  

 

Katherine Phillips is an Environmental Scientist for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.

 

 



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