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Ocean Currents

The Impact of Ocean Trash

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© Susan White / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Written by Tori Glascock

Before there was a waste collection system in place on land, trash was left in the streets and disease was rampant. Similarly, the trash we are dumping into the ocean is having catastrophic effects on the animals that call the ocean home and the people who rely on oceanic ecosystems to sustain their livelihood.

Chief among the problems that ocean trash presents is the inability of ocean animals like sea turtles, seabirds and seals to distinguish what is food and what is trash. First and foremost, these animals should not have to make this distinction as there should not be such an abundance of our trash in the ocean—but we are passed that point and now must find ways to combat this issue.

Balloons and plastic bags appear as a favorite food to turtles and seabirds but prove to be hazardous once ingested. Not only does consuming a balloon cause internal damage, but the string attached to it also lends itself to be an entangling hazard were it to get stuck around an animal’s neck. Other plastic objects including bottle caps, straws and plastic utensils are equally as dangerous to marine life. Last year alone, Ocean Conservancy volunteers collected more than half a million straws and stirrers which are eaten by sea turtles and seabirds, and are even known to clog up the nostrils of turtles. Pledge to Skip the Straw and help limit the amount of straws that get into our ocean!

Seabirds, including gulls, are notoriously known to eat anything they come across, even your sandwich on the beach! These days it is a seemingly destructive characteristic to have because a portion of what they are eating is plastic. The plastic sits in their stomachs and can eventually lead to death. It is estimated that by 2050, 99% of all species of seabirds will be eating plastic and 95% of all individual seabirds will fall victim to the harmful effects of consuming plastic. The predicted percentage of species that will consume plastic is up from the 65% that eat plastic today which is a jump from the historical average of 26%. Also not safe from ocean plastics are juvenile sea turtles, as just .5 of a gram, one one-thousandth of a pound, of ingested plastic can kill them.

In addition to plastic consumer products and packaging, abandoned fishing gear poses  a severe danger to the animals that come in contact with it. Derelict fishing gear such as old nets, lines and pots are coined as ghost gear and lead to a practice known as ghost fishing; the entanglement and capture of marine animals by fishing gear that has been left in the ocean. Scientists recently found a sperm whale with over 440 pounds of fishing gear in its stomach. If you see fishing gear float by be sure to take it out of the water and dispose of it properly!

Stay tuned for our next blog post and  learn how you can help keep our oceans trash free.

Tori Glascock is a 2016 Ocean Conservancy Summer Intern. 

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