Imagine you’re a sea turtle swimming in the ocean looking for your next meal. It’s been a while since you’ve had your last meal and you’re starving. You see a delicious looking jellyfish not too far away. Speeding up your swimming, you bite down on the jellyfish. Gulping down the jellyfish down in a few bites, you see another and eat that one as well. Stomach full you start to go back to swimming on your way. Feeling it getting difficult to breathe, you start to slow down your swimming, swim to the surface to try and get a fresh breath of air, and you are almost run over by a passing research boat.
The boat stops, you hear a splash in the water and feel hands pick you up out of the water. You are handed off to more hands and placed on the boat’s deck. Up on the deck, it takes less energy to take breath and there isn’t a need to surface. Struggling to take each breath, your breaths become shallower and shallower, and you eventually take your last. Unbeknownst to you, it’s not a jellyfish, it’s a plastic bag, one of the trillions of pieces of pollution created by humans in the ocean.
Unfortunately, sea turtles eating plastic bags occurs more than you think. In a study doing autopsies on deceased turtles found washed up on beaches discovered over half of turtles had some type of plastic or human made debris in their digestive system. Spanning the entire Earth, there is an estimated five and a quarter trillion pieces of plastic in the ocean (Parker 2015). About 269,000 tons is currently floating in the ocean, but much like an iceberg, most of the problem is hidden from view (Parker 2015).
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the North Pacific Subtropical High, is one of the largest garbage patches in the world. It has been accumulating for over a century from multiple sources like the United States, China, Indonesia, and the Philippines among many others (Tibbetts 2015). Located halfway in between Hawaii and California, it is very difficult to detect, by both boat and satellite, the entire scope of the problem. The Pacific Garbage Patch has numerous causes, many effects on the environment and animals, and humans can and should do something to stop it from spreading and hurting more of the Earth’s alluring and delicate inhabitants.
First written about in 1988, the Eastern Garbage Patch has been exponentially growing since due to humans and the inability to realize that there is a major problem occurring. The buildups of trash and other various debris is formed due to the ocean’s currents and movement around the world. A. M. Santamaria (2017) stated in the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation, “Within the oceans there are cyclical patterns of water flow called ‘gyres.’ A gyre is a ‘circular ocean current formed by global wind patterns and forces created by Earth’s rotation.’” That means all of the oceans are somehow connected. These gyres are dead zones where all of the currents meet in the middle and there is no flow of the seawater which would break up the pollution buildup and debris.
A study found that out of the twenty countries, the average percentage of waste that is mismanaged was sixty-eight percent. There is also an average quantity of mismanaged plastic waste of 1.323 million metric tons per year (MMT/year), percentage of global mismanaged plastic waste of 4.155 percent, and finally quantity of plastic marine debris between .1985 and .5265 MMT/year (Tibbetts 2015). Humans as whole need to be more careful about their waste because more than what is expected ends up into bodies of water which lead to the oceans and get trapped in these gyres and thus dead zones.
Most of the trash, debris, and plastic breaks into smaller pieces over time, kind of like how ocean glass is formed, beaten down by the waves over time. There, the pieces are able to float and travel farther distances and a good portion wash up on beaches all over. Those small pieces can get into animals digestive systems and then the food chain.
When an animal eats the plastic, they might not realize it. Their intestines or stomach can become blocked up from the unnatural items in their body or their body can start breaking down the plastic where the toxins are released and kill the animal. That affects the entire food chain meaning it could affect humans due to the fact that humans fish and eat seafood caught in the ocean (Tibbetts 2015).
In the Journal of the Human Environment it was stated that, “In the Pacific region, marine pollution impacts on coastal communities can be especially acute given the reliance on Pacific island countries on marine ecosystems and associated services within their extensive EEZs (exclusive economic zones) and beyond” (Richardson, Haynes, Talouli, and Donoghue 2017). That means pollution not only harms the food chains, but it harms the people who rely on seafood as a type of income to support their families.
Human pollution is creating many adverse effects that we might not know about yet, but even the effects we know currently are not favorable. As human population grows, there is a higher demand for food. More humans in the population also means more pollution and waste that is not properly regulated. While more fishing could supply food for the human population, it is not taking in account the other species of animals that also use the same food source. Changing one organisms population can modify the entire community, or even the ecosystem. It can cause overpopulation of one species while completely eliminating another.
Humans as a whole, whether knowing or unknowingly, have affected ecosystems and have caused species to go extinct. It is estimated that about 2,000 species, give or take, are under the vulnerable, endangered, or extinct in the wild umbrella of conservation status. Another effect of the ocean pollution is due to human causing it in the first place, we should be the ones cleaning it up and trying to prevent the garbage patches from growing in size even more.
It is very difficult to determine the sheer amount of debris caused by humans in the oceans. National Geographic said, “Ocean trash is counted in three ways: beach surveys, computer models based on samples collected at sea, and estimates of the amount of trash entering the oceans” (Parker 2017).