The Ocean is Broken

Ten years ago, Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen sailed from Melbourne, Australia to Osaka, Japan. Every day along the way, he and his crew would fish by throwing out a baited line. Every day they would catch good sized fish.

During the trip, birds surrounded Macfadyen’s ship, the Funnel Web. The birds would follow the ship, looking for food, and rest on the mask before taking off again. Huge flocks of birds wheeled over the ocean feeding on schools of sardines. Sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks were frequent sights.

This year, Ivan Macfadyen and the Funnel Web sailed the same exact course from Melbourne to Osaka. But this trip was frighteningly different from the trip ten years ago. This time there were no birds. “In years gone by I’d gotten used to all the birds and their noises,” Macfadyen said. But there were no birds following the ship this trip. There were also no fish. For the entire 28 day voyage from Australia to Japan, the Funnel Web’s crew only caught two fish. Just two fish. And there were no birds at all.

North of the equator, above New Guinea, Macfadyen saw a big fishing ship trawling a reef. Macfadyen and his crew watched the fishing ship trawl back and forth across the reef. It never stopped. It trawled at night, too, under floodlights.

One morning, a speedboat launched from the fishing ship. At first Macfadyen feared they were pirates but the Melanesian fishermen were very friendly and they gave the Funnel Web’s crew gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves. The fishermen also gave Macfadyen “five big sugar-bags full of fish.” Macfadyen tried to refuse the gift. He told the fisherman that there was no way he and his crew could eat all the “good, big fish of all kinds.” He protested that they had no way of storing or keeping all the fish. The friendly fishermen told Macfadyen to just tip what they did not want overboard since that is what they would have done anyways.

“They told us that  this was just a small fraction of one day’s by-catch,” reported Macfadyen. “That they were only interested in tuna and to them, everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing.”

And that was just one fishing ship out of how many countless others.

The next leg of the Funnel Web’s voyage was from Osaka, Japan to San Francisco, California, USA. It was worse than the first leg. The birds were still missing. The fish were still missing. Also missing was all other signs of life. Macfadyen said the Funnel Web came across one sickly looking whale and nothing else at all for 3,000 nautical miles. No dolphins. No sharks. No sea turtles. No birds. No fish.

But lots and lots of garbage.

Most of the debris seemed to be from the March 11, 2011 tsunami that hit Japan. “The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it’s still out there, everywhere you look,” said Macfadyen. The Funnel Web sailed through all kinds of garbage: bottles and bags, huge tangles of rope and fishing nets, hundreds of wooden power poles trailing wires, oil slicks, and “a factory chimney sticking out of the water, with some kind of boiler thing still attached below the surface.”

The floating debris endangered the Funnel Web and its crew. “In a lot of places we couldn’t start our motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable. That’s an unheard of situation, out in the ocean,” said Macfadyen. He and his crew had to set a lookout on the bow to watch out for large debris. The Funnel Web did its best to weave around the worse of the garbage but the crew could constantly hear things hitting the hull. They worried about hitting some unseen thing big enough to do deadly damage. The Funnel Web’s hull was badly scratched and dented. The hull was discolored, too, by some unknown chemical in the water.

Other ships have encountered the tsunami debris. In July, a trimaran racer was battered by garbage and eventually halted altogether when it became entangled with two telephone poles and their wires and other debris.

Macfadyen was horrified by the Funnel Web’s recent journey, by the lack of sea life. He said, “the ocean is broken.”

Marine scientists have worried about the health of the ocean for years. In 1997, Captain Charles J. Moore crossed the Pacific Ocean after he completed the Transpacific Yacht Race and discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moore described his garbage find: “As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic. It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

There are five major ocean gyres (large systems of rotating ocean currents) in the world. These clockwise spirals of ocean currents draw in and trap floating garbage. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (approximate location: 135° to 155° West and 35° to 42° North) has been described as being “twice the size of Texas.” But it is not a huge island of solid garbage. It is not visible from satellite photos. It is often not even visible from shipboard because, while there are large clumps of debris, most of the “garbage patch” is actually a dense soup of floating pieces of plastic.

The world produces about 200 billion pounds of plastic every year. 10% of that plastic will eventually end up in the oceans. 70% of that floating plastic will eventually sink to the bottom of the oceans. But the rest just floats. The big problem is that plastic was made to last forever. It does not biodegrade. No natural process can break down plastic. Plastic does, however, photodegrade. Which means that plastic breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces without ever breaking into simple compounds. The United Nations Environmental Program estimated that every square mile of ocean hosts up to 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. In some areas, plastic outweighs plankton by more than 6 to 1. More recent studies indicate that some areas of the oceans have more than 60 pounds of plastic for every one pound of zooplankton.

Much of this floating soup of plastic will eventually get captured by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or one of the other four major patches. And now the floating debris from the Tohoku Tsunami of 2011 is swirling into the mix.

All this floating garbage swirling around in the oceans causes multiple problems. First it is an eyesore. Who wants garbage floating near where people live and play? This can effect economies. Debris washing up onto New Jersey shores during two summers caused up to three billion dollars in losses to the tourism industry. Los Angeles county in California spent more than four million dollars to keep its 31 miles of beaches clean way back in 1994. Some beaches worldwide are buried under more than five feet of trash. Other beaches are riddled with “plastic or glass sand.”

Second, there is habitat damage. Marine garbage can break or scour habitats such as coral reefs. Floating clumps of debris can cover and smother colonies of algae and plankton. If these communities are threatened or start to die then animals like fish and sea turtles will have less food and they will start to die. This in turn threatens the predator species like sharks, whales, tuna. The whole food web can be endangered.

Third, there is danger of wildlife entanglement. Seals, sea turtles, dolphins, and whales can become tangled in plastic bags, wires, ropes, old fishing line and nets. All kinds of fish, even tiny jellyfish like creatures, can get tangled in lengths of plastic filament. Entanglement can cause injury, illness, deformity, suffocation, starvation, and even death.

Fourth, there is danger of wildlife ingesting garbage. Filter feeders like jellyfish can suck up plastic bags and pieces and damage their fragile bodies. Fish and other marine animals can mistake debris for food. Small plastic pellets can easily look like fish eggs floating just beneath the surface. The animals can starve to death while their bellies are filled with what they thought was food. Fish and birds by the hundreds of thousands have been found with plastic filled stomachs. And there is also the danger that plastic can act as “chemical sponges” and concentrate toxic pollutants. Animals eating the floating plastic debris can unknowingly poison themselves.

It is estimated that more than a million sea birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by entanglement or ingestion of plastics.

The fifth problem is vessel damage and navigation hazards. The Funnel Web and many other ships have reported damage to their hulls from larger pieces of debris. Some ships have been stopped dead in the water when their propellers get entangled.

Alien species transport is a sixth problem. Some creatures, like water skater insects, small crabs, barnacles, and invertebrates called bryozoans live on hard surfaces in the water. Floating pieces of plastic are a boon to them because it provides more surfaces for them to live on. But then the floating debris may drift out of the creatures old territories and into new territories where they can become an invading danger to the creatures already living there.

All of these problems can adversely effect human health and safety. The real question is: What can we do about it? Ivan Macfadyen asked this same question after he returned from his horrific journey. “I asked them (scientists and academics) why don’t we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess,” Macfadyen said. “But they said they’d calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there.”

If you would like to know more about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and other patches like it, and what you can do to begin to help the broken ocean, you can start by viewing the following short videos. These videos range from just a few minutes to almost 14 minutes in length.

Please click the link to watch Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Please click this link to watch What’s an Ocean Garbage Patch?
Please click this link to watch a presentation by researcher Wallace J. Nichols, PhD.
And please click on this link to watch the mockumentary A Journey to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Click this link to read a 44 page publication from the United Nations Environmental Program.

And to watch fishermen save a young, little, entangled dolphin just a few days ago, please click this link.

9 thoughts on “The Ocean is Broken

  1. OMG This is unacceptable! Karen's right, what do we DO about it? Any organizations that can help? ~ Tracy (also in TX) GO TEXAS GARDEN CLUBS!

  2. Right now there is no way to clean up the Garbage Patches. Since the garbage is not floating on just the surface but in all lower levels down to the bottom the garbage can not be skimmed off the top. Any dredging or sucking up of the garbage would risk catching and killing marine life (just as fishing nets catch and kill everything indiscriminately). Also since so much of the plastic is so small, even microscopic, we just do not have the equipment needed. Just imagine finding a needle in the haystack. This would be similar except the haystack is thousands and thousands of miles and there are millions of needles and they are all constantly moving. 😮

    So really the best thing is to stop the plastic and other garbage from ever reaching the oceans. Recycle and reuse. Come up with some way to change plastic so that is does biodegrade. Stop all ocean dumping of garbage. Clean up the beaches so the stuff does not go back out into the ocean. There really is no one easy answer. ;(

  3. Captain Ivan Macfadyen has simple advice: “People need to stop buying plastic garbage.” That means stop buying cheap plastic toys for your kids and definitely stop buying plastic water bottles.

    Captain Charles Moore has founded the Algalita Marine Research Institute to conduct research and collaborative studies on marine plastic pollution. Their website has a links page (http://www.algalita.org/about-us/links.html) with some organizations deserving of support. 🙂

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