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Every year, fishermen catch over 77.9 million metric tons of fish — that’s pretty huge, right? Well, that’s nothing compared to the amount of trash we put in their place. 240 million metric tons of garbage ends up in our ocean every year, three times of the fish we take out of it. The most prevalent contaminants include plastics, debris, and a variety of chemicals, but untreated wastes, run-offs and deliberate illegal dumping also adds to the looming disaster. At sea, storms and accidents like oil spills also cause a fair percentage of this staggering amount.
Some of the most commonly found toxic contaminants in fish include metals like mercury, lead and chromium, but also dioxins, PCB’s and other man-made chemicals. These toxins have been linked to several cancers, fertility issues, lower IQs, hypertension, and diabetes. They enter the marine environment via degrading plastics, air pollution, or agricultural and industrial runoff. The toxic particles are eaten by plankton and then absorbed through the entire food chain.
Alarmingly, researchers have also discovered traces of the medicines we take for cholesterol, bipolar disorder, and depression in fish caught near wastewater plants. This means that not only are we ingesting our own degrading garbage, we are also on medication that was never intended for us. Although the amount of toxins we actually consume may be minute, you have to remember that they accumulate over time, and that they become more concentrated as they travel up the food chain.
Thousands of beaches are closed every year due to high levels of contaminated and polluted waters. The most recent statistics for the US alone paint a grim picture. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 3.5 million people become ill every year after swimming in contaminated water. That figure could even be higher, as many people do not realize that their recreational activities caused their illness; as such, a lot of it goes unreported.
In all, there have been more than 20,000 beach closings thanks to contamination, and over 4,000 outbreaks of waterborne illnesses. These including rashes, ear infections, respiratory problems, and gastroenteritis, but also several life-threatening cases of the Vibrio vulnificus bacteria. Fatal 50% of the time, Vibrio was responsible for 31 fatalities between 2009 and 2010. To make matters worse, the EPA has relaxed their acceptable levels for contamination to 3.6% – meaning they decided it is now acceptable for 1 in every 28 people to become ill after swimming at their local beach.
Thanks to the BP oil spill of 2010, between 4 and 5 million barrels of oil spewed into the ocean. It was, without a doubt, a terrible ecological disaster. Yet, accidental oil spills only account for 7.7% of the ocean’s oil pollution. The majority of oil actually comes from illegal oil disposal on land, as well as ships at sea that deliberately discharge their waste oil into the world’s waters (up to 220 million barrels each year.)
According to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences, the amount of operational oil illegally dumped from ships was five times more than those caused by spills. Oil washed to sea from our roads and left in marinas by jet skis and boats made up the rest.
Before 1970, the oceans were the number one spot to dispose of excessive rubbish, including toxic munitions like mustard gas and radioactive waste. Hundreds of thousands of these barrels litter the ocean floor. Although many of these veritable time-bombs remain semi-contained, several drums have ruptured, killing thousands of animals. Others have been discovered by oblivious fishermen, resulting in horrific injuries. In certain cases, they ended up back on beaches, thrust from the sea by tsunamis or storms.
The practice was banned internationally in 1993, and immediately gave rise to a new form of organized crime. The Italian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia, for example, stepped in to “alleviate” the radioactive waste headache for well-paying businessmen. The ‘Ndrangheta is suspected of sinking up to 40 ships in recent years, all filled with radioactive waste that might still be there in a million years or so.
Floating or submerged, marine debris poses a serious threat for recreational boaters and commercial shipping alike. In 2005 alone, the US Coast Guard reported 269 boating accidents, 116 injuries, 15 deaths and $3 million in property damage, due to collisions or entanglements with debris. Plastic items account for more than 80% of the problem; as it is mostly non-biodegradable, the plastic that ends up in the ocean will likely remain there for the next 400 years or so.
Worse yet, more than one million seabirds choke or get entangled in our waste every year. In fact, whole ecosystems are at risk due to animals ingesting the debris while believing it to be food. At the uninhabited Midway Island, tens of thousands of bird carcasses litter the ground, filled with plastic debris. A further 100,000 seals, sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine species die each year due to entanglement with “ghost nets” and discarded traps.
Worldwide, our ocean’s pH is decreasing due to rising levels of carbon dioxide absorbed from the Earth’s atmosphere. Acidification’s impact can already be witnessed in the bleaching of corals and the reduced calcification abilities of certain shellfish and other sea creatures. As these organisms become vulnerable to dissolution, the acidification poses a very real threat to the ocean’s food chains, and entire ecosystems may be lost.
According to some scientists, the ocean’s chemistry has already been altered to the extent that sound now travels farther, creating serious issues for the animals that depend on echolocation. While the potential ecological consequences are just beginning to emerge, acidification is happening faster today than at any other time in our history, and many scientists believe the damage to be irreversible.
Hypoxic, or “Dead” Zones, are areas in the oceans where oxygen levels have been depleted to such an extent that it can’t support marine life any longer. At last count, more than 400 periodic or permanent dead zones existed, covering an area approximately the size of the New Zealand. Their origins may be natural, thanks to water being stagnant for too long, but mostly these zones are caused by excessive amounts of nutrients in the water due to chemical pollutants. These nutrients feed algae blooms that eventually die off and sink to the bottom of the ocean, where the bacteria that feeds on it absorbs the water’s last bit of oxygen.
Apart from all the death, these zones lead to numerous reproductive issues for marine life, from smaller reproductive organs to low sex hormone concentrations, low egg counts, and less spawning. Furthermore, the economic losses are devastating. In the Baltic Sea alone, the production of 1.3 million metric tons of fish is lost every year.
Our ocean’s currents move in a very specific rotational pattern. Called gyres, these massive vortexes draw waste products and marine debris toward its center where it builds up, trapping it indefinitely and creating what many call “trash islands.” We currently know of several trash islands, of which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most well-known. Estimates of the Great Pacific Patch’s size vary, as it is not detectable in satellite images, but scientists believe it may cover an area twice the size of Texas. It took its discoverer, Charles Moore, more than a week to travel through the rubbish when he stumbled upon it in 1997.
The latest research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has shown that these trash islands are still expanding and growing. Sadly, the debris covers too large an area for attempted clean-up expeditions to be of any real significance.
If you haven’t heard of “wealth accounting” before, it’s basically a scientific method used to determine the economic or financial value of a country’s natural resources. Through the collaborated research efforts of various marine biologists, scientists, economists, and chemists, the true scope of the financial losses suffered globally due to oceanic pollution is becoming clearer. When it comes to the ocean’s coral reefs alone, the $172 billion worth of services they provide annually can be lost within the next twenty years. Furthermore, the destruction of our coastal-marine ecosystems will cause millions of tons of carbon emissions or greenhouse gases to be released from the soil, increasing the air temperature close to Earth, and boosting global warming. A recent estimate predicted that our global financial losses due to global warming would amount to $2 trillion annually by the year 2100.
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