The Devastating Effects of Plastic Ocean Waste on Marine Life

Plastic waste in the oceanPhoto: Kevin Krejci

As if oil were not enough, we also have tons and tons of plastic in our oceans. Indeed, plastics threaten our future as much as, perhaps even more so, than oil. The recent oil spill has educated and in some cases introduced the public at large to the existence of barrier islands, those little mounds of sand that protect the mainland from erosion. Contrary to popular opinion, these islands do not exist solely for the protection of man and his personal property but rather exist in their own right as complex (and complicated) systems of life.

Take for example Long Beach Island, a skinny little sliver of a sand bar off the southern coast of New Jersey. At the very tip of that island is place so pristine that you can’t even believe it exists in nature. Officially, this segment of the island is the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wild Life Refuge. It is preserved wilderness. As I have come to learn, “wilderness” simply means that man cannot infringe on it in any way. This particular wilderness is paradise. The birds are plentiful, the waves are luscious, and the sky is blue.

Future for our childrenPhoto: Tracey Shors

Adding icing to the cake, there are very few people on this end of the island. Indeed, my only reservation about writing this piece is that more people might come to visit. But they won’t stay long because there are no boardwalks, bars, restaurants or Ferris wheels down here. Mover, there are these big green flies that quite literally suck the blood right out of you. Some folks want to get rid of the flies. I say no. Flies belong here just as much as we do. It is their wilderness, too. Save our tasty blood, they might choose to get rid of us. Besides, no pesticides are allowed in the wilderness.

So who controls wilderness? From my understanding, no one is supposed to control anything about it. But obviously, someone has to control the uncontrollable. “Wilderness” really means that someone has to make sure (i.e. control) that man keeps his bloody hands off and greedy brain out of it. To that end, the refuge is closed to vacationers and beachcombers during the summer months. This is enforceable by law because of the plovers, a species of bird on the verge of extinction.

bird at jersey shorePhoto: Tracey Shors

These lovely little birds lay their eggs in the sand. Skin boards would make scrambled eggs out of their babies and so they are “protected” — but only for so long. As soon as Labor Day comes around, the babies learn to fly and are off for the winter. Then man can run amok. He can even take his four-wheel drive along for a spin. Sure enough, down on the Jersey shore, you can drive right down the beach swerving in and out of birds and beach bums.

I was quite nearly run over the other day just lying in the sand. Does this seem totally incongruent to you as it does to me? Of course it does and is — but apparently there is a law somewhere that says that no one owns the shoreline in New Jersey. No one man – but many men to be sure. Man is still in control and he is now in search of fun and fish – – from now until the plovers return to lay their eggs. Yeah.

array of plasticPhoto: Tracey Shors

Let me be clear. I have nothing against fishermen. But what I really love are the fish. Sure, they are tasty to eat, but what you really have to appreciate is their perseverance. They have survived on this planet for millions and millions of years — way longer than we have and until recently, they have been protected from us and our prying eyes by that big body of water that blankets most of the earth. But not for long — oh no, not for long. The fish are going and they are going fast. So are the birds. And we can’t blame it on fishermen or their SUVs.

neon bottle topsPhoto: Tracey Shors

Look away from the blue horizon for just a minute and focus on the sand. What you begin to see are little round specks of color, bright color. What could they be? Surely they are not bird eggs. Oh no. They are not oil globs either, at least not yet. These objects are neon, not colors of nature. They are bottle caps – hundreds of plastic bottle caps — mixed in with nearly as many plastic straws, tampon holders, cigar tips, plastic bottles, toys, hair dye bottles, fishing lures and syringes.

If it can be made out of plastic – it can be found on the wildlife refuge. And lest anyone think that this sea of bottle tops is only an eyesore, think again. The fish and the birds eat these things. Fishing lures are made to look like this for a reason. Yep, bottle tops are killing the fish and they will ultimately kill us all.

mother and son at jersey shorePhoto: Tracey Shors

Now don’t get me wrong, the refuge is usually pristine – storms in the ocean bring these objects to the shore. But the storms are not to blame either. Like the night reveals the stars, the storm simply reveals what is there all along. Indeed, barrier islands like Long Beach Island serve their purpose well – they protect the mainland from a mounting sea of plastic.

If not, the sight of it might be so disturbing that someone might actually do something about it. But out here on the end of the island with only a few birds and a few fishermen in sight, who is going to do anything about it? And even if someone wanted to do something about it – what could they do? WHAT CAN WE DO? Can we teach fish not to eat plastic — before they go extinct?

wildlife refugePhoto: Tracey Shors

Before I appreciated the scale of this problem, I was concerned about balloons. Year after year, birthday after birthday, we let our children make a wish, even encouraged them to, and send huge bundles of plastic balloons off into the clouds. Balloons don’t go off into the clouds much less to the heavens. No, they end up back on land, usually in the ocean, where fish and turtles and birds eat them and suffocate to death, while their fancy ribbons get tangled up with seaweed and plankton for further destruction.

balloons close to everythingPhoto: Tracey Shors

I hate to be a party pooper but we may just have to ban balloons. But then what? Are we going to ban plastic bottle caps and tampons and toy trucks? Can we do anything to stop this insanity? Can we save ourselves from ourselves? Can we save the ocean for our children? Gosh darn almighty, can we at least save the fish and the birds?

When you think albatross, you think of the one around your neck. But the real albatross is a big beautiful seabird, one of the biggest on Earth. Like most seabirds, it dives for its food. But recently, these magnificent creatures have been diving to their death. Scientists could not figure out why. After a few crude dissections, they found the answer – plastics.

shadow in sandPhoto: Tracey Shors

Their stomachs are filled with plastic – so much plastic that they can no longer eat or fly. And so they dive and die. One enterprising young woman collected the plastic out of all the stomachs and lined it up in the sand according to category. What do you think was the most common item? You got it — plastic bottle caps.

Hundreds and thousands of brightly colored plastic bottle caps – mixed in with plastic straws, tampon holders, cigar tips, fishing lures, toy trucks – even some printer cartridges. These are the same array of objects found on the shores of Long Beach Island. You do not need to be a brain surgeon to figure this one out.

Where is all this stuff coming from? Is it the fault of nonchalant fisherman and boaters? Is it coming from the high and low rollers of Atlantic City? Is it coming downstream from the city slickers of New York? Or worse, is the ocean so populated with plastics that they are simply coalescing with each other to make landfall anywhere they can? Could this really be true?

Sadly, it is. There are now (as in today) places in our ocean where the density of plastic is so high that it is nearly solid. There is even a word for it – flotsam. I saw a live sample of it the other day and it will break your heart. It is made from plastic debris, which gets broken down by the ocean currents into little pieces the size of dog food – or should I say fish food?

According to some reports, this plastic soup weighs nearly 100 million tons and would twice cover the landmass of the United States. Some argue that it can’t possibly be that big. Who cares? What if it is only the size of the state of New Jersey? It is still swirling and swirling just below the surface of our world. As if the huge oil spill in the Gulf were not enough. The easiest thing to do is nothing, but that is how we got in this predicament in the first place – that and littering.

witness of the futurePhoto: Tracey Shors

Yes, the real problem is litter. Most things, especially plastic things, flow downward once they hit water. Land is, by definition, higher than water, and therefore, most things go from land into water. Barrier islands like Long Beach Island, as well as rivers and bays act as “natural filters” into the ocean. Thus, plastic dropped on the ground anywhere – even in Idaho – gets taken up during rainstorms or is dropped intentionally into rivers. These objects make their way eventually to the ocean.

Now granted, much of the plastic on Long Beach Island did not come from Idaho. But it probably came from many states, including those inland. It is important to know that our beaches are not necessarily (or even substantially) strewn with plastic because disconcerting beach combers leave plastics on the beach, but rather because someone else somewhere else did not bother to throw the plastic away in the first place.

Plastic is everywhere. Look along your local roads and tracks — mile after mile of plastic cups, bottles, straws and bags. Go to Walmart or just about any store and notice that everything is either made of plastic or encased in plastic. Meanwhile, the oil companies are making more and more for us to buy (as if they have not caused enough grief and misery already). Believe it or not, everything that was ever made of plastic is still on this planet — and a lot of it did not make its way to the landfill.

The problem almost seems insurmountable. But it can’t be. We can’t just give up. We may not be able to stop the oil from flowing into the Gulf of Mexico but we can stop the flow of plastic into our oceans. We have to loosen the grip of the albatross — if not for the birds and the fish, then for ourselves and our children.

Here is a 12-step program to get us started:
1. Go to Clean-Ups. They are not fun (not to mention hard on the back). Do it anyway.
2. Clean up trash even when it is not a Clean-Up Day. If you see a bottle cap or plastic cup or anything plastic, pick it up and put it in the trash. It may seem like an insignificant act, but it is not. It only takes one bottle cap to kill a bird.
3. Do not use a plastic bag to buy a muffin from any convenience store.
4. Do not buy balloons.
5. Do not buy tampons with plastic holders. Use whatever it takes but don’t use plastic.
6. Report illegal dumping. Call 911 if you have to. Perpetrators can be fined or even put in jail. Negative reinforcement works.
7. Tell your kids to never ever litter. Teach them to love fish and birds as much as they love toy soldiers.

Toy soldier in sandPhoto: Tracey Shors

8. Collect plastic instead of precious shells off the beach.
9. Support gutters. They may not be glamorous but they stop plastics from getting into the ocean.
10. Complain when your streets don’t get cleaned. Street sweeping keeps plastics out of the ocean.
11. Post signs: “No plastic; goes to ocean.” They remind us to do the right thing.
12. It is going to be hard, but we must stop buying plastic bottles.

If we could do that and a bit more, birds and the fish might just get to spend another glorious summer down by the Jersey shore.

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