How does ocean pollution affect marine life?

By now, most people have witnessed all the hype of reducing plastic use (bags, straws, etc.), but do you really know why people are pushing for it? Do you live in a land locked state or country and wonder how you reducing plastic use helps save the ocean from plastic killing marine life?

The Problem

Globally, we have produced more plastic in the past decade than the whole of the last century! Plastic is not biodegradable and stays in the ocean for years and years. It is estimated that there is now 15-51 trillion pieces of plastic found in oceans all over the world. Photographs can be seen of piles of trash floating in the ocean or on nearby shores. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest accumulation of plastic in the world said to be about two times the size of Texas or three times the size of Spain! It is found in the north-central Pacific Ocean gyre.

Where does the plastic come from?

With so much plastic floating in the ocean, you may wonder where does it come from and how long does it stay? Single use plastics like straws, napkins, cups, bottles, shoes, packaging material, balloons, etc. can easily end up in the ocean. Some items are directly put in the ocean whereas others, one way or another, end up in the ocean. Some ways these items end up in the ocean are from debris from construction, ports and marinas, industrial places, trash being blown out of containers, trucks, and landfills, and overflowing of sewer systems. Depending on the type of plastic, some can take up to 1000 years to decompose! This is the major problem with plastic killing marine life because plastic that makes it to the ocean will be there for a very long time, making all the life in the ocean vulnerable to its damaging effects.

Plastic killing marine life

Once the plastic is in the ocean, it becomes a part of the ecosystem. Many sea animals are at risk of ingesting plastic as mistaken food or becoming tangled up in the plastic, both of which could lead to their death. Plastic is killing marine life at an alarming rate. Many animals in the sea mistake plastic for food. Animals that have washed ashore dead have been found with plastic in their stomachs including sea turtles, Hawaiian Monk seals, whales, dolphins, and seabirds. A recent research study suggests at least 690 marine species have encountered plastic in their lifetime.

Sea Turtles

Sea turtles are perhaps one of the animals most harmed by plastic. Plastic bags especially look like jellyfish which is a primary treat for turtles. Turtles will bite the plastic for its meal often dying from either the plastic itself or starvation, thinking that they are full from the plastic they have consumed. Loggerhead sea turtles are particularly affected by plastics in the ocean. Turtles can also get trapped in plastic as they approach to eat it. Additionally, plastic is killing marine life by affecting breeding grounds. Turtles lay eggs in the sand where they incubate until they are ready to hatch. Studies show that there is so much plastic on the breeding grounds that the temperature is affected and rates of egg hatches are diminished. This could have dire consequences on the survival of turtle species which are already endangered. Even mating behaviors have been negatively affected by plastic.

Hawaiian Monk Seals

Hawaiian monk seals are already endangered making them vulnerable to plastic killing marine life. The major threat to these seals is entanglement in fishing gear which can cause infection or total inability to move to sustain life. Besides entanglement, there is an alarmingly high amount of plastics that are found in their pup nurseries as well. The Hawaiian islands seem to be a gathering point for much of the ocean’s debris, making this habitat extremely vulnerable to plastic pollution which can significantly harm the ecosystem and the marine animals living in it.

Marine Mammals

Plastic killing marine life does not stop at the smaller animals. Marine mammals such as whales and dolphins have been found with plastic in their stomachs as well. Additionally, whales and dolphins can get trapped in line or nets left carelessly behind. Entanglement can lead to drowning and/or starvation. There are videos out there where you can see divers come across some of these animals and help them get free from the plastic tangled mess.

Seabirds

Plastic killing marine life is not specific to just the animals that live under the ocean. Any animal the feeds near or on the ocean is also at risk for ingesting plastic. Research suggests that 60% of seabirds have ingested plastic while others suggest this number is actually closer to 90%, making them another victim of plastic. By ingesting plastic, the stomach of seabirds decreases in volume, leading to starvation. Think about it, what kinds of plastic do you see floating in the ocean or laying on the sand that resemble food? It is easy to understand how birds would mistake plastic for food.

What can you do to help?

By now, you realize there is a problem of plastic killing marine life. We can all help by reducing our own plastic use.
A few ways to help:
Reduce your plastic use by getting a reusable water bottle, reusable bags, etc.
Help get rid of plastic straws for good
Cut the 6-pack plastic rings so animals do not become trapped in them
Throw your trash in the proper receptacle (regular or recycle)
Be careful of what you pour down the drain
When you visit the ocean pick up any trash you see
Support venues that have traded out plastic packaging to environmentally-friendly biodegradable packaging
Participate in a coastal cleanup

How much plastic do humans produce each year?

Humans produce about 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is single-use. Packaging is the largest source of this plastic accounting for up to 40% of the plastic produced each year.

How much plastic is dumped in the ocean each year?

Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean.

Can we get rid of the plastic already in the ocean?

This is a very difficult question. It is hard to extract plastic that already sits in the ocean. However, the Ocean Cleanup has devised a floating trash collector that sweeps the ocean surface and a few feet below to grab the plastic where it can be taken back to shore by boat and recycled properly. There is hope that this new technology will help get rid of the plastic that has already accumulated all over the world’s oceans.
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