This week, I had the pleasure of watching Capt. Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, talk about his journey with plastics in our ocean. Within minutes of his presentation, you couldn’t help but feel for this concerning issue that simply doesn’t get enough media attention.
Capt. Moore first noticed this problem in 1997, on his way home from a yacht sailing race to Hawaii. He took an alternate route on his way home, and couldn’t believe what he saw. Since then, he vowed to conduct research and to inform people about this monstrosity that takes place far out of people’s sight: in gyres, where the current accumulates this debris.
The pictures he shows are astounding (see his TED talk below for some more visuals). The problem he presents goes into the chemistry, although it doesn’t take a scientist to understand that these plastics often don’t break down in water too easily. In fact, they don’t even break down in animal stomachs either. He shows some evidence of plastics that have accumulated inside of fish and whales, showing that our plastic simply doesn’t go away after humans put it in the trash bin. He shows some birds who have picked up bottle caps and fishing nets/gear that have swallowed these things and attempted to regurgitate them to their young as food. His visuals become even more disheartening when he shows turtles that have lived their entire lives stuck inside the rings from plastic bottle caps (as they grew, their shells become abnormally morphed).
Through field studies, he shows us that these problems exist everywhere in the ocean. At the surface, the water may seem trashy in some areas, and blue in others. But when we look at some spots on the ocean floor, we see plastic bags and bottles littering the ecosystem. When we look at other depths of the ocean, we see habitats created out of cans and containers, causing species range shifts that were clearly unintended.
He notes that this field of research comes with flaws. There are a lot of people who fund our oil sands and others that despise when spills happen in our oceans. But when it comes to plastics (which are made from oils), they get no media coverage and no policy is in place to clean these up. Although beach clean-ups are a great educational tool, they don’t target the root of the problem. With more people attempting to research this field, Capt. Moore remains hopeful that we will start finding solutions.