The amount of plastic litter strewn across UK beaches has increased by 140% since 1994.
That’s the stark figure released by the Marine Conservation Society.
The frightening reality is that much of that plastic will never disappear; instead those unsightly pieces of brightly coloured junk break down into smaller and smaller crumbs until they’re small enough to be ingested by fish and filter feeders.
If plastic in the food chain isn’t enough cause for concern, even more worrying is the plastic that does break down. Scientists reporting in National Geographic have discovered that in warm tropical seas, plastic decomposes, leaching highly toxic chemicals into the water – poisoning fish and perhaps even causing cancer in humans who eat polluted seafood.
So where is the problem at its worst? And crucially, what can we as sea fishermen and women do about it?
They’re gigantic eddies found in the world’s oceans, slowly rotating currents that drive rubbish towards the centre where it stays forever. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was the first predicted by American scientists in 1988, and in the years since, other similar rubbish dumps have been discovered in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian Oceans.
In the most badly affected areas, there are six times as many minute pieces of plastic as there are plankton – and the area we’re talking about? It’s thought the Great Pacific Patch covers somewhere between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometres – the wide disparity between the upper and lower limits being accounted for by differences in the definition of what constitutes an elevated concentration of plastic particles.
Hard To Spot
It’s thought around a million sea birds die each year from ingesting pieces of plastic mistaken for food, with a hundred thousand marine mammals succumbing to the same fate. But these huge oceanic garbage dumps are all but invisible to the naked eye. In fact you could sail right across one and not notice it’s there. That’s because they’re mostly made up of those billions of small pieces of plastic mentioned in the introduction to this piece.
Plastic dumped in the sea off the Pacific coast of the USA takes six years to reach the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a similar item dropped in the brine off Eastern Asia takes about a year. But once there, there it stays – the trash heaps of the sea are growing bigger by the day.
Do Your Bit
As a sea angler, leaving no litter and disposing of sea fishing tackle carefully is the least you can do to protect the health of the marine environment. There are also local beach cleanups and national campaigns for the marine environment – groups like Surfers Against Sewage and the Marine Conservation Society have details of what you can do to help.
But if it all seems like too little too late, and if the thought of the poisoning of fish and marine life on a global scale makes you despair for the future, take heart. There might just be a solution.
Ever since the plastic pollution problem first became big news at the beginning of this century, efforts to come up with a cleanup solution have focused on boats hauling fine mesh nets. But carbon emissions, coupled with huge costs and destruction of bycatch made a resolution of the problem seem all but impossible, until, that is, a 17-year-old Dutch student Boyan Slat came up with a whole new approach – passive cleanup.
Huge inflatable booms would funnel debris into a processing unit powered by solar panels. The young inventor estimated half the Pacific Garbage Patch could be cleared within 10 years – and even better, the collected plastic could be sold for recycling.
Critics poured scorn on his idea, but with youthful determination, Slat managed to secure crowdfunding, and with the money assembled a 100 strong team of scientists and volunteers to undertake an in depth feasibility study – the results have just been announced.
The concept works.
If you’d like to find out more about how the oceans could clean themselves, check out the Boyan Slats talk on the feasibility study. The Ocean Cleanup – we can make it happen.