Within the expanse of the oceans, there are confluence points where the myriad currents meet. Naturally, as the currents travel there, they carry what they catch. The great tragedy is the massive amounts of trash that join them on their travels. Much of this trash mirrors our own consumption habits, in that it is plastic. Plastic, the ubiquitous compound of modern society. Resilient to a fault, it does not degrade. Instead, plastic has a nasty habit of mechanically breaking into tiny pieces, microplastics, that are now as ubiquitous in the oceans as the tides that carry them.
Often, before they are shredded into microscopic particles, pieces of plastic, some of them unimaginably large, journey to these confluence points and create what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (it is yet to be determined how and if microplastics migrate along these same pathways). For almost two decades, we have known about this floating trash dump the size of Texas between Hawaii and California.
Since it was discovered, various theories have floated about the origin of this trash. Many people assumed that the plastics are consumer waste – bottles, bags, the garbage of modern society. People dump stuff in the ocean and it ends up somewhere else.
A comprehensive new study shows the origin of most of the plastic is not what we assumed (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/). In fact, most of the trash is abandoned fishing gear.
Here are some insane numbers on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
1.8 trillion pieces of plastic total
Microplastics are 94% of those by number, but only 8% by weight
79,000 metric tons of plastic
46% is fishing nets
Majority of the rest is ropes, oyster spaces, eel traps, crates, baskets, etc.
20% is from the 2011 Japanese tsunami
Breaking this down. There are a lot of pieces of very small and very hard to collect plastic. And the bigger pieces are constantly degrading into smaller and smaller pieces, making cleanup exponentially more difficult as time passes.
Also, fishing is the worst. Overfishing is leading to collapse of ocean ecosystems, but fishing is meta-killing everything through pollution. And yes, plastic does kill – animals eat it, and it can get stuck in their digestive tract. Or are killed or injured by it. For example, they can become entangled in abandoned nets. Long term, we do not know what the effect of microplastics is for life, including at the top of the food chain (humans). And if it has an impact on fish, those fish will probably have one on people too upon consumption.
There are a number of multinational efforts underway to figure out what the hell to do here. Considering the trash is largely from a single industry, it should be a lot easier to address the issue than if it was caused by every single person that visits the beach. That is good news! But, I have yet to hear about any efforts to limit trash from the fishing industry. Good luck getting that treaty passed. As always, wouldn’t the easiest solution be to not make a mess in the first case? The case for ocean fishing continually looks worse the more we learn about it. How much do you like sushi? More than clean water?