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The Plastic Problem in the Marine Environment

11 plastic debris

Recently in Plettenberg Bay, we were thrilled to enjoy a visit over several days by a Killer Whale (Orca Orcinus). Both crew and passengers were amazed by the Orcas’ relaxed and apparently friendly demeanour towards humans. After a couple of days, the animal beached itself. Concerned members of the public alerted the authorities who managed to refloat it and off she swam. A few days later, she stranded again. This time however, she did so after dark and no-one was around to witness her last hours, or do anything to help.

Saddened, a crew of researchers did an investigation of the carcass, including the removal of her stomach. It felt full. Little did they realise that on further examination, the contents of the Orcas’ stomach were mostly made of one of the major killers in the ocean – plastic. A flip-flop, a yoghurt tub and a few other articles that are unquestionably not part of the natural diet of these apex predators. While it hasn’t been determined that the plastic definitely led to her death, it likely didn’t aid her survival either.

Annually, an estimated 800 million tons of plastic is dumped in the ocean; some accidentally and some intentionally by the ignorant public and unscrupulous garbage-haulers. This means that during one of our marine excursions at Ocean Blue Adventures, of about 2 hours, up to 1800 tons of plastic has been carelessly dumped in the ocean. It does not belong.

It is well known to most that plastic is not biodegradable. This means that it will never disappear. There are several places in the oceans known as gyres; areas of stable water that are not much affected by currents, which are covered in plastic several feet thick – up to twice the size of Texas, or 1 400 000 sq.km.

What few realise is that it is photo-degradeable, meaning that when exposed to sunlight, it gradually becomes brittle and breaks down into microscopic parts. When this happens in the ocean, these tiny plastic molecules mix with the natural organic matter, including plankton, and are indistinguishable to the multitude of creatures that feed on plankton.

Putting it simply, this poisons everything. Everything! And when humans later consume seafood products, they too begin to accumulate toxins that may ultimately affect their own health. Never mind the high levels of mercury, PCBs and numerous other toxins that are abundant in both fish and shellfish.

So what can be done? It is vital that mankind reduce or eliminate his dependence on plastic. One of the most abundant sources of waste plastic is to be found in the packaging that our groceries are found in, as well as plastic bags. You, as the consumer have a definite voice in reversing this trend and certainly an obligation to say no to excess packaging and use recycled or re-usable carrier bags when shopping. Furthermore, boycott the ridiculous plastic toys handed out by companies. If you see or use plastic, get creative and discover ways of ridding your life and our planet of this scourge. And, if you still must use plastic, dispose of it responsibly and ensure that it does not end up in the ocean. Or anywhere that it doesn’t belong.

Written by: Steve Bebington

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