Issue 93 / May - June 2013
A Slap on the Beach
The tropical Kamilo Beach on the Big Island of Hawaiian Archipelago should be a scenic place with white sands and crystal clear waters. However it is laden with tons of human made objects that have floated across the ocean and been dumped on the shore by the currents.
This beach is one of the starkest reminders of the extent of human impact on oceans.
Kamilo Beach is not the only junk beach in the world. Similar trashed beaches exist in the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean and Baja California. The litter on these shores and in the seas is so excessive that it is even visible to the people on land. Out towards the open seas, huge garbage patches fill the middle of the ocean, like wide loops of rotating currents, also known as gyres (www.marinedebris.noaa.gov).
Gyres are major surface currents that circle the oceans. They are driven by persistent winds and the Coriolis Effect which is caused by the Earth's rotation. The human impact on oceans is displayed by the gyres. They gather trash released into seas from countries around the oceans and through rivers they carry the floating objects and trash spewed from fallen shipping containers.
This was dramatically demonstrated when a cargo of sports shoes were lost in the sea in 1990. The shoes floated and drifted with the currents. Eventually thousands of them washed up on shores from Alaska to California. The manufacturer provided the serial numbers of the lost shoes. Beachcombers responded to calls by researchers regarding the time and location that they found the beached shoes. When all the data points were combined, the gyre's circulation period over 3 years was obtained. Tracking a spill of bathtub toys provided similar results.
Outsourcing of manufacturing overseas and worldwide supply chains are made possibly by networks of container shipping lines. For reasons of economies of scale, the containers are stacked precariously high on the decks. At rough seas in the open ocean, some of these containers are washed overboard. There are about 10 million 40-foot cargo containers in use in the world. Every year a few thousand of them are washed off the decks of ships in heavy seas. The lost cargo rarely becomes news; it often stays confidential among the ship owner, the importer, the exporter and the insurer. Many of the lost containers sink to the bottom of the ocean. However some of them float and release their contents. This is the source of the flotillas of running shoes, or the toys that get carried away by the currents and winds.
The great garbage patch in North Pacific Ocean covers an area double the size of Texas. Like a conveyor belt, North Pacific Subtropical Gyre rotates clockwise, carrying with it the natural or man-made floating objects. The life span of a gyre is about three years. The floating objects may end washed up at beaches or they may be drifted to the center of the gyre where the currents are weakest. This is where the garbage patch formsâfrom millions of tons of plastic and other debris covering millions of square miles (www.dels.nas.edu).
Plastic nurdles are a significant part of the pollution. These tiny beads are used as raw material in manufacturing. They are carried in container loads across the oceans and are occasionally spilled in large amounts and dispersed at sea.
Compared to organic matter that rots, decays, and gets recycled back into biomass by organisms, plastic is durable. A single plastic water bottle can last for hundreds of years. Suspended in sea water, these plastic particles absorb toxic chemicals. When marine animals consume the floating plastic, disproportionately high levels of these toxic materials are accumulated in their bodies. Some of these animals end up as food on our dinner table. Yes, that plastic tossed into the sea returns back as poisonous seasoning in our diet!
Plastics are contaminating the food chain at different levels. The animals at sea mistake trash for food. The microscopic particles get absorbed by animals filtering sea water for food. Easily mistaken for jellyfish in water, plastic bags suffocate sea animals that ingest them for food. Larger items threaten sea birds and mammals. Seabirds die when their guts get clogged with swallowed plastic items, and other animals starve because their stomachs are full of debris (www.commerce.senate.gov/pdf/marinedebris).
A serious source of marine debris is the fishing industry. Numerous fishing nets and floats get lost and are abandoned at sea. These nets, which may extend a distance of many miles, strangle turtles and other sea mammals. Fishing industries should be inspected to keep track of their gear. There are organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium (www.montereybayaquarium.org) that distribute information about environmentally friendly fishing. In a free market economy where people vote with their money, consumers should inquire about the sources of seafood and support fishermen that do not leave their nets behind.
Enforcement in open seas requires international cooperation. Vessels should be inspected at their ports of call. Volunteers spotting container ships may record differences in cargo and alert authorities for missing containers. Marine laws, fees, taxes, and insurance premiums can be updated to deter unsafe loading of container ships. In the long run, vessel designs, navigational routes, shipping schedules and weather monitoring should be improved for minimization of cargo loss. An international cooperation is essential to oversee these efforts. The balance sheet of shipping business should include the cost of loss-free transport of containers.
The seas appear to be vast, but we seem to have come to the limits of it by the sheer amounts of garbage dumped into the rivers and by the contamination by marine transportation. These are inescapable reminders that we have reached the limits of this resource. The sea often regurgitates whatever is dumped inside it. This is like a slap on the beach, where the ocean hits back at us with our own trash, not to praise us or show approval, but to bring before our eyes the chaos we have created.
The universe is granted with an internal maintenance system, recycling its own waste products, hence reflecting the absolute purity of the Divine in His creation. The responsibility of humans as âvicegerentsâ of the earth include using the Earthâs resources without dumping or wasting but safeguarding the environmental balance and acknowledging that every creation has its purpose in being and should be treated accordingly.
The trashed beaches and mid-ocean garbage patches are signs of the deadly and long lasting effects introduced by humans into the seas. This is totally avoidable. We should employ a zero waste approach to our consumption habits. Cost of reusing, recycling and safe disposal of products should be reflected in the price of goods. Laws and regulations should be updated and enforced to minimize the dispersion of long lasting contaminants into the environment. The shipping and fishing industries should be accountable for lost cargo and gear. The seabirds should not starve, and the turtles should not drown due to our negligence.
Auman, H.J., Ludwig, J.P., Giesy, J.P., Colborn, T., (1997) "Plastic ingestion by Laysan Albatross chicks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, in 1994 and 1995." in Albatross Biology and Conservation, (ed by G. Robinson and R. Gales). Surrey Beatty & Sons:Chipping Norton. Pp. 239-44
Spear, L.B., Ainley, D.G. & Ribic, C.A. (1995). "Incidence of plastic in seabirds from the tropical Pacific, 1984â91: relation with distribution of species, sex, age, season, year and body weight." Marine Environmental Research 40: 123â146
Ebbesmeyer, Curtis; Eric Scigliano. 2009. Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Manâs Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science. London: Collins.