Will the Huge Garbage Dump at the Bottom of the Ocean Lead to Another Extinction?
From the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to toxic pollution on the Pacific Ocean floor, we are destroying our oceans in so many ways. Recently we’ve seen how the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 has been hampered by the large amounts of ocean garbage, misidentified as pieces of the downed plane.
Now comes news of human litter found in even more oceans: bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets and other human litter have been found in Europe’s deepest ocean depths, from the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans to the Mediterranean Sea.
Scientists used video and trawl surveys to take nearly 600 samples from 32 sites in these areas. They found garbage in every Mediterranean site surveyed, and all the way from the continental shelf of Europe to the mid-Atlantic ridge, around 1,242 miles from land.
Plastic is the Most Common Kind of Trash
Plastic was the most common type of litter found on the seafloor, accounting for 41 percent, while garbage associated with fishing activities (discarded net and fishing lines) made up 34 percent. The remainder consisted of glass, metal, wood, paper and cardboard, clothing, pottery and other, unidentified materials.
This is depressing news, but not entirely surprising. I have taken part in several “Adopt-A-Crag” days organized by the Access Fund to clean up climbing areas. At Great Falls, Va., a few years ago, we found fishing line and snares, six-pack rings, a styrofoam cooler, some tires, a box of diapers and many bottles, all washed up by the river.
In this new European study, led by the University of the Azores and involving 15 European organizations, the most dense accumulations of litter were found in deep underwater canyons, and the lowest density on continental shelves and ocean ridges.
Dr. Kerry Howell, associate professor at Plymouth University’s Marine Institute, who took part in the study, said:
This survey has shown that human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans. Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us.
Deadly Impact of Trash on Marine Life
Destroying the beauty of our oceans by polluting them in itself is bad, but what about the effect of all this trash on marine mammals?
Litter can be mistaken as food and ingested by a wide variety of marine organisms. Entanglement in derelict fishing gear – known as “ghost fishing” – is a serious threat to mammals, turtles, birds and corals. As Care2′s Abigail Geer wrote recently, more than a million sea birds and mammals are killed each year by ingesting plastic.
That’s because around 100 million tons of plastic are produced every year, and 10 percent of it ends up in the sea. Once in the water, the debris accumulates in large patches, travels with currents and washes up onshore. This litter is frequently consumed, often with fatal effects, by marine mammals, fish and birds who mistake it for food.
In addition, cruise ships dump more than 250,000 gallons of wastewater and sewage every day, causing a huge amount of damage to marine life. Cruise ships can legally dump untreated sewage and other waste into the water once they are three miles from shore. The impact of this disgusting toxic waste as it is discharged directly into the ocean is enormous.
A Third of Ocean Creatures Killed by End of Century
Even more alarmingly, as Elizabeth Kolbert said, discussing her new book “The Sixth Extinction” on NPR:
If we continue at our present rate of CO2 emissions, then by the end of this century … [extrapolating from this study,] you’re looking at eliminating a third of the creatures in the ocean as a very rough estimate. And then as you … get closer and closer to [underwater gas vents] — so even beyond what we expect at the end of this century — if we sort of continue beyond that point, then you’re getting to a point where your oceans really start to look sort of like the underwater equivalent of a vacant lot.
Kolbert’s book begins with a history of the “big five” extinctions of the past, and goes on to explain how human behavior is creating a sixth one — including our use of fossil fuels and the production of CO2. We are destroying our oceans.
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