Thursday, 3 January 2008
Everyday objects condemn sea life to death
By IAN JOHNSTON
IT IS something most of us hardly think of as we go about our daily lives. Out of sight and out of mind, our waste is largely someone else's problem.
The popularity of recycling may have soared in recent years, but this recent awakening will do little to address the 1,000-year legacy of litter and pollution we have already left for the world's marine life.
That dropped crisp packet, discarded mineral water bottle or escaped plastic bag could be at the start of an epic journey around the world, sailing the Seven Seas for something close to eternity.
Hundreds of thousands of animals are thought to die every year as a result of marine litter, most of it plastic.
Plastic has several qualities that makes it particularly dangerous to sea life:
• it floats, so seabirds will scoop up what they think is a tasty snack, only to fill their stomachs with undigestible toothbrushes and disposable lighters, while filter feeders like basking sharks take in plastic particles, as fine as sand, along with plankton.
• it sinks, so creatures on the seabed are similarly affected - a study of Europe's continental shelf found up to 262,000 piece of plastic per sq mile, most of it plastic bottles and bags.
• in the water, plastic bags and burst balloons look like jellyfish and, when swallowed, can choke animals like whales and turtles or block their gut so they starve to death.
• it lasts for hundreds of years: it is estimated that plastic can survive at sea for between 450 and 1,000 years, but some forms may never fully degrade. Albatrosses on Hawaii have been found to have eaten plastic from Japanese fighter planes that crashed more than half a century ago.
Few people realise just how much litter there is in the sea, but sailors like Dame Ellen MacArthur see the problem at first hand.
"In the Bay of Biscay and the North Atlantic, when it is flat calm you see so much plastic debris, loads of polystyrene, fishing floats... I've hit a container in the North Atlantic," she said.
"I've been up to the north-west of Scotland and there's a lot of stuff, plastic, bits of rope and net, plastic bottle - there are so many plastic bottles.
"It's horrible, it's bad for wildlife and we don't enjoy it either. You get hugely protective of the ocean. A photographer on board chucked one of those little film cases over the side and I went nuts.
"All the sailors I've sailed with... nothing goes over the side. You do about one binbag every ten days and you store it on the boat."
On a recent visit to South Georgia, Dame Ellen travelled to an uninhabited island with conservationists to record albatross nests. Even in this remote part of the Southern Ocean, they found hooks used by long-line fishing boats - one of the main reasons 19 out of 21 albatross species are endangered.
"It's is incredibly tragic what's going on," she said. "Because the currents travel all over the world, with the sea you cannot separate it in the same way you can with a country. In the sea things can travel for thousands of miles. That is very important."
Adam Walters, a consultant at the Greenpeace research laboratory, took part in an expedition to sail to every sea on the planet and assess just how much litter they contain.
"It's only when you throw a net in the sea that you find it is covered in tiny fragments of plastic. From a ship you don't see anything," he said.
"We were using nets with a 0.3mm mesh size. Drag for a couple of miles and you find hundreds and hundreds of tiny pieces of plastic, like grains of sand."
The analysis is still being carried out, but he said 80 per cent of plastic waste in the sea originated on land, rather than being thrown overboard from boats.
"It is truly shocking. To a greater or lesser extent the entire surface of the ocean is covered in plastic and this stuff is not going to go away," he said.
"Most plastics are recyclable but we haven't got the systems in place to recycle it.
"It is unsustainable. To produce something disposable that will remain in that form for thousands of years is nonsensical."
The international extent of the problem was illustrated when 20 containers carrying bath toys were lost overboard in the Pacific in 1992.
Since then oceanographers, with tip-offs from the public, have monitored a flotilla as it successfully navigated the North-West Passage, entering the Atlantic.
A faded green frog, with the identifying "The First Years" logo, was reportedly discovered in the Hebrides in 2003.
Calum Duncan, the Scottish conservation manager for the Marine Conservation Society, emphasised the very real effect of litter on sealife.
"Globally, it is estimated that 100,000 marine mammals and a million seabirds die annually because of ingesting or entanglement by marine litter," he said.
"It's another motivation for people to think about how they behave when they are at the beach or elsewhere.
"The same applies anywhere, whether you are on the beach or on land: dispose of rubbish properly. There is a real wildlife threat from not doing so."
Posted by mark mcgowan at 09:30