Why Should You Care About Ocean Plastic Pollution?
It’s more deadly than you realize.
Ocean plastic is a problem. We all know it by now. Whether you’ve seen the viral video of a turtle with a straw up its nose or heard of plastic bag bans, you know the problem of ocean plastic is proclaimed far and wide.
But it’s not about the turtles.
Here’s a dirty little secret:
Sea turtles don’t matter.
Not in the overall picture anyway. Yes, they’re precious. Yes, they support some ecosystems, yes they are a huge draw for ecotourism and yes they pull on our heartstrings (that’s why you clicked on this article, is it not?).
But in the big picture? They don’t do much for the ocean.
While losing sea turtles would be a tragedy, the ocean will continue to thrive without them.
I’m not saying don’t care about sea turtles. I’m not saying don’t promote their conservation.
I’m just saying sea turtles and other cute animals are in the spotlight, while the real players of the ocean’s ecosystems are hidden in the darkness.
Now I’m not faulting you for ignoring them. They’re not very cute, some don’t even live where you can find them, and most are too small to see.
But these tiny organisms control the fate of our oceans.
So why don’t we ever hear about them?
Probably because hearing about larval fish ingesting plastic doesn’t strike the same painful chord as watching a graphic video of a sea turtle with a straw up its nose.
And the moment I start talking about the complex relationship between phytoplankton blooms and anoxic zones created by frenzied decomp-
Wait? Are you still there? Sea turtles! Dolphins! #Banthestraw!
Back now? Good. Look, I know seagrasses and copepods aren’t as interesting, but they’re important, and I promise I’ll make this fun. (mostly)
But first let’s ask the question: if sea turtles don’t matter, why do we hear so much about them?
The Cuteness Factor
Stop reading and think of 5 ocean creatures. Got them? Good.
How many of those animals are:
- Mammals? (I’m talking dolphins, whales, and seals)
- Birds? (Puffins and penguins anyone?)
- Fish? (Think Finding Nemo)
- Invertebrates? (Cute ones include octopuses, cuttlefish, sea stars and sea jellies)
- Microscopic? (larval fish, copepods, larval invertebrates, coccolithophores, cyanobacteria)
I’m willing to bet none of the last line made it onto your list. (And if they did I’m willing to bet you studied life sciences).
Because humans are emotional beings. We use logic, yes, we are capable of extremely complex thoughts, but it’s our emotions that drive us. It’s our emotions that make us want to do something hard, like giving up single-use plastics.
Big, beautiful, and adorable sea creatures tug at those emotions. (Don’t believe me? Go watch a video of a baby sea otter and try not to say ‘awww’)
Charismatic megafauna, as my marine science professor liked to call them, draw our attention because we relate to them. When you see a dolphin, you can imagine its thoughts. You can watch it play games. You can look into its eyes and see the intelligence in them. Can’t do that with a coral.
And megafauna are important. They do play a role. Some of them, like sea otters, change the structure of their environment.
But in the realm of ocean conservation, the most important role megafauna play is getting us to care.
Back to the plastic straws. If you’ve stopped using them by now (and I really hope you have) it was probably to save the turtles. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
But we have to realize that the creatures we don’t see matter too. They matter a lot.
Ocean Plastics Crash Course:
There is a lot of plastic in the ocean. Tiny pieces. It’s not supposed to be there. Lots of things eat this plastic. This is very bad for them. Plastic is bad.
Slightly longer version:
- There’s a lot of plastic in the ocean. A lot. And we add 8 million metric tonnes a year.
- If we keep overfishing and putting plastic in the ocean, there could be more plastics than fish by 2050.
- Most plastic enters the ocean through rivers and watersheds, primarily in Asia. (Where they don’t have the proper infrastructure to handle trash and where we’ve been sending our trash for decades.)
- There’s a giant swirl of plastics in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.
- Most of the plastic in the ocean comes in the form of microplastics, which are tiny pieces of plastic no bigger than a grain of rice (about 5mm).
- Nearly all seabirds have ingested plastic. Many mammals too. It can kill them.
- We’ve found ocean plastic in the deepest part of the ocean (a plastic bag at the bottom of the Mariana Trench) and pretty much everywhere else.
And here’s the kicker:
Ocean plastic has the potential to dismantle ocean ecosystems from the bottom up.
That’s where those not-so-cute creatures come in.
The Invisible Ocean Ecosystem
It’s not just the seals and the seabirds that ingest plastic. It’s the tiny creatures too. And there’s a big difference between ‘tiny creatures’ on land and in the sea.
On land, most offspring start out ten to twenty times smaller than their parents.
In the ocean, most offspring start out hundreds to thousands of times smaller than their parents.
In the ocean, most species of fish and invertebrates (read: key players in the food chain and economically important) begin their life in a larval stage- teeny tiny babies that don’t look anything like their parents.
Most of the ocean ecosystem is invisible to us and if the tiny creatures die, they affect everything up the food chain. All the way to the orcas.
And since most ocean plastic fits into the category of ‘very tiny’ I bet you can guess where this is going.
Tiny ocean creatures are eating plastic instead of food.
The Plastic Problem We Don’t Talk About
All these tiny creatures that are so important to life in the ocean are known as plankton. Being plankton just means the creature can’t swim against the current. It has no choice but to go with the flow.
Unfortunately, plastic also has no ‘choice’ but to go with the flow. And ‘the flow’ carries things to specific places (remember the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?).
For example, there are areas off the coast of Hawaii where a lot of important fish begin their lives. By important I don’t just mean to the ecosystem. I mean these fish are important to us too. We eat them. They support tourism.
These areas, known as slicks, are calm coastal waters teeming with microscopic life. They are great for these tiny baby fish because a lot of other plankton get swept into the area with them so there’s plenty of food for them to eat. And (*insert impending doom sound effect here*)
Plastics get swept up in there too. These tiny fish can eat the plastic pieces. If they eat plastic, they could die. To put it bluntly:
Ocean plastics could cause entire fish populations to collapse at the larval stage before we have any hope of helping them. This would be devastating ecologically and economically.
Big Fish Eats Little Fish Eats… Plastic.
Say the tiny fish and other tiny creatures that eat plastic do survive, at least long enough to get eaten by something else. That predator now has even more plastic inside. This continues up the food chain, through a process known as bioaccumulation.
The higher up on the food chain an animal is, the more of the substance it has in its body. This is well studied in ocean food chains with mercury and is the reason why eating tuna is a higher mercury risk than eating shrimp.
Plastics are threatening to become the new mercury. They’ll accumulate in the food chain and end up in high amounts in the creatures we love so dearly, like seals and dolphins, most of whom happen to be near the top of the food chain. It doesn’t matter how many fishing nets we modify or how many beaches we declare ‘straw free’ to save the turtles if the plastic is coming from inside their food.
Nowhere is safe from microplastic pollution. Deep in the Mariana Trench, Scientists found a new crustacean (a relative of crabs) with plastic inside. To raise awareness of the pollution problem, they dubbed the species Eurythenes plasticus.
The ocean plastic pollution problem is so pervasive and so bad we named a species after it.
How Do We Deal With the Ocean Plastic Problem?
Now that I’ve cheerily impressed the impending doom of our oceans if we don’t act now, what exactly can we do?
1. Stop using single-use plastics
Stopping single-use is no small task. The plastics industry and our consumer culture has made single-use an integral part of our lives, and getting rid of it is going to be hard. We also need to eliminate waste in the manufacturing process. And the disposal process. And we need to stop putting plastics where they don’t belong, like in our t-shirts.
2. Get much better at recycling plastics
We’ve got to overhaul the recycling system. What we have now doesn’t work. But in the meantime, there are some things we can do to recycle better.
3. Clean up the plastic that’s in the ocean
We have to support ocean plastic cleanup. There are initiatives to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other huge areas, but they’re a long way from being economically viable.
Right now the best thing you can do is to buy things that had to be made out of plastic anyway made of ocean plastics. Support brands like United by Blue and 4Ocean that pull plastics from the water for every purchase you make. Join a beach or river cleanup.
Ocean plastic pollution is a huge problem. It’s overwhelming. And it feels like our actions don’t make a difference. But they do.
And next time you refuse a plastic straw, remember, you don’t have to do it for the turtles. You can do it for the copepods.