Small Plastics Pose Big Problem
One Fish, Two fish, Red Fish, Shoe fish
Trash on the bottom of the ocean used to be out of sight and out of mind, but a project by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) brought images of deep sea dumps to the surface. The MBARI team observed more than 1,500 pieces of trash on the seafloor from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of California, and as far west as the Hawaiian Islands.
Oceanic life sometimes made the best of this bad situation by colonizing the garbage. For example, this young rockfish is a shoe-in for survival and adaptation at 472 meters (1,548 feet) deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California.
Seafloor Social Network
Other young rockfish swim around discarded fishing equipment on the floor of Monterey Canyon off the coast of California. Luckily for them, the net isn't working. While some marine life may be able to adapt to human garbage, oceanic trash can trap animals, release toxins, smother plants and have other negative effects.
Boxing Day for Crabs
An octopus coils and crabs crawl over a metal box 2,432 meters (7979 feet) deep in Monterey Canyon.
This shipping container was discovered by MBARI four months after it fell off the merchant vessel Med Taipei during a storm in February of 2004. The container was just one of the estimated 10,000 shipping containers lost overboard every year.
Drums in the Deep
A wanna-be Sebastian the Crab, from Disney's the Little Mermaid, may be planning to turn this drum into a percussion instrument for a calypso band under the sea. The 55-gallon drum lies 2,892 meters (9,488 feet) deep in outer Monterey Canyon.
Even fragile garbage like this old cardboard can become part of the ocean floor ecosystem if it isn't handled with care. However, the crabs may be grouchy that cardboard covers their habitat 3,950 meters deep, offshore of Point Conception, Santa Barbara County, California.
A sea anemone (top) and sea cucumber (right) gained traction on the surface of this tire submerged 868 meters (2,850 feet) beneath the waves in Monterey Canyon.
The ubiquitous Coca Cola logo can be found even 1,200 meters deep in Monterey Canyon.
Classic Fish Pun
This old shoe is in pretty bad shape, but it seems to still have its sole...or is that a flounder (upper left)?
It's in the Water
The slogan of Olympia beer, “It's the water,” can barely be read on this old can. In this case, lots and lots of water.
Someone didn't turn in this soda bottle for a deposit. Instead, deep in the sea, brittle stars creep around the bottle on Davidson Seamount, 60 miles offshore of California and 1,727 meters (5,666 feet) below the ocean surface. "The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw—glass, metal, paper, plastic—could be recycled," said Kyra Schlining, lead author of the MBARI study published in Deep-Sea Research, in a press release.
The Long Black Veil
A gorgonian coral wears a veil of black plastic 2,115 meters (almost 7,000 feet) deep in Astoria Canyon, off the coast of Oregon. The veil could become a death shroud if the plastic were to completely cover the coral and block coral polyps from feeding.
Dr. Pepper's slogan could be modified to, “Would you like to be a polluter too?” for this can submerged 1,529 meters deep on Axial Seamount, off the Pacific Northwest's coast. The nearby brittle stars probably can't tell the difference between Dr. Pepper detritus and Mr. Pibb pollution.
A decade or so ago, scientists first discovered that tiny pieces of plastic debris discarded by human civilization — some only a few thousandths of a millimeter in size — were finding their way into the oceans. But since then, it’s become increasingly apparent that microplastics, as the miniscule trash is called, represent a potentially huge threat to aquatic animals, according to an article in the July 11 edition of the journal Science.
The article, by marine scientists Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. and Richard C. Thompson of the UK’s Plymouth University, notes that researchers increasingly are focusing upon the danger from microplastics, because their size makes it possible for a huge range of organisms — from large marine mammals, fish and birds to zooplankton — to ingest them. (Indeed, a 2012 study found that they pose a health threat to Baleen whales.)
A report issued in June by the Global Ocean Commission estimated that 10 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans each year. Some of the plastic is discarded into waterways and then is carried into the ocean, but it’s also lost or discarded at sea by ships, the article notes.
Larger plastic items degrade to form microplastic, but some of the particles also are being put directly into the sea, because bits of cosmetic beads and clothing fibers are small enough to pass through wastewater treatment systems.
Once in the oceans, the particles are transported far and wide in a complex pattern that is difficult to predict. However, scientists have found very high concentrations in the subtropical gyres -- that is, areas where currents rotate rapidly — and in basins such as the Mediterranean.
Microplastics are themselves toxic, but they also soak up harmful chemicals that contaminate the ocean, such as DDT and PBDEs, so that they deliver a concentrated dose to the animals who ingest them. Marine scientists also worry that microplastics will end up in seafood-eating humans as well.
Microplastics are just one of the environmental woes afflicting the world’s oceans, and pushing them perilously close to ecological collapse, according to an article published last week in Foreign Policy, a political science journal.
Solving the problem is difficult because 65 percent of the oceans are outside the territorial waters of individual nations, and have become the equivalent of a chaotic, lawless “failed state” such as Somalia on land, the Foreign Policy article argued.
Photo: Plastic bags and discarded items degrade into tiny microplastic particles, which pose an increasing threat to aquatic life. Credit: NOAA