In his latest documentary, 27-year-old British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi calls out the commercial fishing industry for harming the oceans in the pursuit of fish. Since its release, the polarizing film has gone viral and climbed to Netflix's top ten across the globe. The exposé has sparked countless questions about and investigation into the seafood industry's claims and practices.
Tabrizi opens the film with scenes from his childhood. His love of the ocean came from watching orcas and dolphins perform in marine theme parks. As an adult, he came to understand the harm associated with captive mammals. The storyline quickly progresses to cover mass dolphin killing in Taiji, Japan along with overfishing for tuna. Everything is connected, and the chain of destruction goes on until "the documentary loses its shock factor" because "the bleak statistics cease to surprise," reported The Independent. The message is clear: "we are destroying sea life at rapid speed."
Seaspiracy alleges that overfishing for tuna helps keep demand and prices high. Netflix
In the film, Sylvia Earle, famed marine biologist and ocean explorer, warns that since humans excel at extracting enormous amounts of marine life from the sea, commercial fishing itself will go extinct because eventually there will be no fish left.
A Thrillist review said Seaspiracy connects all of the dots between commercial fishing, ocean destruction and slavery with a "wobbly line" and the "indictment of the myth of sustainability."
With each new scene, Tabrizi reveals the fraud, corruption and greed currently destroying the oceans. Through figures and expert cameos, he claims:
- Discarded plastic fishing gear accounts for most ocean debris and is killing whales and other animals;
- The oceans will be emptied of fish in 27 years;
- Safe seafood labels are compromised by "pay-to-play" profit structures and lack enforcement;
- Overfishing is more damaging to the environment than deforestation;
- Farmed fish are disease-ridden, pollution-creating and resource-intensive;
- Thai fishing fleets use slave labor to remain profitable;
- "Sustainable seafood" is a myth; and
- The only solution is to stop eating fish.
Shark bycatch is seen being dumped overboard in West Africa. Sea Shepherd
Tabrizi's takeaway is a scathing condemnation of the multibillion-dollar seafood industry and the governments, groups and companies complicit with the ocean's destruction. Seaspiracy calls for a collective shift away from eating seafood and toward vegan and plant-based alternatives.
"The amount of fish being taken out of the ocean is absolutely stunning — five million fish a minute," Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Founder Capt. Paul Watson told EcoWatch. "We're strip-mining life from the sea. There is no sustainable fishery anywhere on the planet."
The marine conservation organization, known and sometimes criticized for its direct action techniques, features prominently in Tabrizi's film. Tabrizi films from Sea Shepherd ships as they confront an illegal Chinese fishing vessel and encounter starving artisanal fishers in West Africa who have lost their jobs and food source to industrial fisheries.
When asked if the state of the oceans is as dire as depicted in Seaspiracy, Watson told EcoWatch, "I think it's actually worse than presented in this film. For the most part, these problems are out of sight, out of mind. And, if the ocean dies, we die."
The Sea Shepherd fleet of ships patrols the world's waters. Thomas Le / Sea Shepherd
To date, millions have watched the documentary, and reactions from viewers and marine organizations run the gamut.
"I think it was a brilliant film," Watson said. "It's the first opportunity to get the message out about what's happening in our oceans. Many people are being confronted with information that they never paid attention to before."
One Twitter user agreed, saying, "So modern fishing with nets large enough to sweep up cathedrals is wiping out ocean ecosystems which we rely on to regulate the planet. We are literally killing ourselves...." Another user urged, "Do watch it if you care about oceans/fish. I'm gonna stop eating fish, starting today. A must watch."
Critics of the film have also been vocal, denouncing the underlying facts presented, the film's possible vegan agenda and its reductionist and sensationalist approach, Global Aquaculture Alliance reported. The New York Times likened the tone to "a cheap imitation of hard-hitting investigative journalism" full of "conspiratorial thinking." Some accused the film of perpetuating a "white savior complex," The Independent reported.
Leading seafood certification group Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a target throughout the documentary, refused Tabrizi's numerous interview requests. After the documentary's release, MSC agreed that, "There is a crisis in our oceans, and an urgent need to end overfishing." The organization also rebutted, "... it is wrong to claim that there is no such thing [as] sustainable fishing and that the only solution is to stop eating fish. Some of the problems that the film highlights — bycatch, overfishing and destruction of marine ecosystems — are precisely the issues the MSC certification process is designed to address."
Sea Shepherd Founder Paul Watson considers commercial fishing the biggest threat to the future of the oceans. Sea Shepherd
Mark J. Palmer, who is connected to the Earth Island Institute, the firm that manages the "dolphin-safe" label for tuna, is featured in a pivotal scene in the film. On camera, Tabrizi asks Palmer whether he can guarantee that all tuna cans labeled dolphin-safe caused no harm to dolphins. The latter responds, "Nope. Nobody can," and justifies his answer by saying, "Once you're out there in the ocean, how do you know what [fishermen are] doing? We have observers onboard — observers can be bribed and are not out on a regular basis."
Palmer has since tried to dampen his statement and suggests that Seaspiracy took his remarks out of context, IntraFish, a seafood news site, reported. Newsweek fact-checked the film's claims and Palmer's defenses and concluded that "[b]ased on comments made by the Earth Island Institute and other experts, it is not possible to say whether all canned tuna that is labeled 'dolphin-friendly' is guaranteed to have not harmed dolphins in the fishing process."
Regardless of whether or not they are fans of the film, most conservationists and scientists agree that the oceans matter in the fight against the climate crisis, both for providing food security for millions worldwide along with protecting cultural ways of life.
According to The Guardian, Callum Roberts, a marine conservationist featured in Seaspiracy, offered this conclusion for the film's critics: "My colleagues may rue the statistics, but the basic thrust of it is we are doing a huge amount of damage to the ocean and that's true. At some point, you run out. Whether it's 2048 or 2079, the question is: 'Is the trajectory in the wrong direction or the right direction?'"
bpperry / Getty Images
By Tara Lohan
Each year the amount of plastic swirling in ocean gyres and surfing the tide toward coastal beaches seems to increase. So too does the amount of plastic particles being consumed by fish — including species that help feed billions of people around the world.
A new study published in the journal Global Change Biology revealed that the rate of plastic consumption by marine fish has doubled in the last decade and is increasing by more than 2% a year.
The study also revealed new information about what species are most affected and where the risks are greatest.
The researchers did a global analysis of mounting studies of plastic pollution in the ocean and found data on plastic ingestion for 555 species of marine and estuarine fish. Their results showed that 386 fish species — two-thirds of all species — had ingested plastic. And of those, 210 were species that are commercially fished.
Not surprisingly, places with an abundance of plastic in surface waters, such as East Asia, led to a higher likelihood of plastic ingestion by fish.
But fish type and behavior, researchers found, also plays a role. Active predators — those at the top of the food chain, like members of the Sphyrnidae family, which includes hammerhead and bonnethead sharks — ingested the most plastic. Grazers and filter‐feeders consumed the least.
Blue shark at Cape Point, South Africa, 2016. Steve Woods / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
"Overall, the likelihood of plastic ingestion decreases with depth," the researchers found.
Although bioaccumulation of plastic and its associated chemicals can cause health problems, this isn't causing noticeable fish population problems — yet. The research revealed that the majority of the species they found to have ingested plastic remain abundant.
But at the same time, 35 species were listed as threatened or near threatened. Another 26 species are vulnerable to overfishing. The authors identified the blue shark, Atlantic bluefin tuna and chinook salmon as "species of high concern due to their threatened status, vulnerability to overfishing and frequent plastic ingestion."
Meanwhile the researchers found that three-quarters of commercially fished species ingested plastic, including ones common in recreational fisheries and aquaculture that "have the highest likelihood to be part of the supply chain." Common sole was found to be "most worrisome."
Even more troubling is that there's still a lot we don't know because some areas are better studied than others.
Some nearshore areas are among those where research is lacking. "Only four studies were conducted within the continental United States' Exclusive Economic Zone, despite more marine plastic originating from the United States than any other developed nation," the researchers wrote.
Oceanic gyres, those swirling eddies of plastic in the open ocean, are also a black hole when it comes to research. "We uncovered no studies from the Indian, South Atlantic or western North Pacific gyres though there is extensive knowledge of surface debris accumulation in these regions," they found. "Similarly, there was a paucity of data from high‐latitude seas and none from the Southern Ocean, even though the polar oceans are a sink for microplastic debris with new fisheries developing in these regions as ice retreats and climate changes."
By comparison, coastal waters — including estuaries — are well studied, as are the seas surrounding Europe. And they found a "recent flurry of studies" from East Asia.
Even with a growing amount of research, the scope and severity of the problem is likely still underestimated.
Filling in these knowledge gaps will be crucial to better understand the extent of the problem, but the researchers say we'll also need to study top predators more to learn how plastic bioaccumulates in the food chain and how these mobile predators may redistribute plastic across the ocean as they travel.
Little is known about how ingested plastic affects fish and marine ecosystems, and even less about how human health could be affected when plastic-eating fish end up on the dinner table.
"Current evidence for humans ingesting plastic directly from fish remains scant, but there is growing concern," the researchers wrote. "In particular, the continued aggregation and analysis of information on plastic ingestion by marine fish is vital as these data are inextricably linked to ecosystem and human health."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
Krill oil has gained a lot of popularity recently as a superior alternative to fish oil. Basically, the claim goes, anything fish oil can do, krill oil does better. Read on to learn what makes krill oil supplements better than fish oil supplements, why you should consider these vitamin supplements, and which brands we recommend.
What is Krill Oil?
Krill oil is made from a tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that live in the ocean and usually serve as whale food. In fact, krill means "whale food" in Norwegian. These tiny organisms actually play an extremely important role in the food chains of marine ecosystems. The krill used to make krill oil are usually found in the waters around Antarctica.
Just like the fish oils found in supplements, krill oil is rich in omega 3 fatty acids that contain EPA and DHA, two compounds that are proven to have a number of health benefits.
But what makes krill oil better than fish oil?
It's believed that krill oil is better absorbed in the body than fish oil. Both derive most of their benefits through the EPA and DHA that are contained in their fatty acid stores. However, for the same dose, krill oil will result in more fatty acids in the blood than fish oil. A potential explanation for this is that while fish oil's fatty acids come as triglycerides, krill oil's come as phospholipids which are more easily processed by the body.
Additionally, krill oil contains astaxanthin which is an antioxidant that has anti-inflammatory properties that might have an enhanced positive effect on heart health. Studies have shown that krill oil is more effective than fish oil at lowering blood pressure and lowering bad cholesterol.
Our Picks for the Best Krill Oil Supplements
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. You can learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
- Best Overall - Vital Plan Krill Oil Plus
- Best for Cognitive Health - Onnit Krill Oil
- Best for Heart Health - NOW Neptune Krill Oil
- Best for Joint Health - Viva Naturals Antarctic Krill Oil
- Strongest - Sports Research Antarctic Krill Oil
How We Chose the Best Krill Oil Supplements
Here are the factors that we considered when comparing the best krill oil brands to create our list of recommended supplements.
Omega-3 Content - We looked to see the amount of omega-3 fatty acids contained in each krill oil softgel or capsule.
Astaxanthin Content - The best krill oil pills contain this naturally-occurring antioxidant.
Third-Party Lab Testing - For any nutritional supplement, we choose brands that guarantee the quality of their product through independent lab testing.
Krill Source - We also compared these supplements for the source of their krill oil, and only recommend brands that use sustainably-harvested krill.
The 5 Best Krill Oil Supplements
Best Overall: Vital Plan Krill Oil Plus
- Omega-3s - 330 mg per 3 softgels
- Astaxanthin - 150 mcg per 3 softgels
- Krill Source - Antarctica
Why buy: We love Vital Plan Krill Oil Plus because it contains omega-3 fatty acids, astaxanthin, and choline to help promote brain, cardiovascular, and joint health, and because it is made with sustainably-harvested Antarctic krill. In fact, Vital Plan uses Superba krill oil, which is certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and is 100% traceable.
Best for Cognitive Health: Onnit Krill Oil
- Omega-3s - 240 mg per 2 softgels
- Astaxanthin - 200 mcg per 2 softgels
- Krill Source - Antarctica
Why buy: Onnit Krill Oil makes it easy to supplement your diet with the essential nutrients found in krill with just two softgels per day. The DHA and EPA fatty acids, plus astaxanthin, contained in these supplements can help support better cognitive, heart, and joint health. Plus, they source their krill from a Friend of the Sea certified supplier.
Best for Heart Health: NOW Neptune Krill Oil
- Omega-3s - 250 mg per 2 softgels
- Astaxanthin - 360 mcg per 2 softgels
- Source - Antarctica
Why buy: NOW Neptune Krill Oil supplements use 100% Neptune krill oil, a patented oil derived from Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). Two softgels contain 250 mg of omega-3 fatty acids and 360 mcg of astaxanthin that can promote better cardiovascular and joint health. We like NOW Neptune Krill Oil because they also get their krill oil from a Friend of the Sea certified source.
Best for Joint Health: Viva Naturals Antarctic Krill Oil
- Omega-3s - 330 mg per 2 capsules
- Astaxanthin - 1.6 mg per 2 capsules
- Source - Antarctica
Why buy: Viva Naturals uses a trademarked Caplique capsulation to avoid any krill oil odor or potential fishy burps. WIth 90 mg of DHA and 165 mg of EPA per 2 capsule serving, this supplement will definitely give you your money's worth, as they pack more DHA and EPA than your average supplement. We like that these capsules contain a higher concentration of the antioxidant astaxanthin, and are designed to eliminate any fishy aftertaste.
Strongest: Sports Research Antarctic Krill Oil
- Omega-3s - 240 mg per softgel
- Astaxanthin - 500 mcg per softgel
- Source - Antarctica
Why buy: IKOS certified and made with their proprietary Superba krill oil formula, Sports Research Antarctic Krill Oil is an excellent choice if you're looking to enjoy the benefits that quality omega-3 fatty acids can provide. Every softgel capsule contains 1000 mg of krill oil, making it the strongest krill oil supplement on our list. We like that their krill oil is also certified as sustainably sourced by the MSC.
The Research on Krill Oil Supplements
Research has long demonstrated the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids commonly found in foods like fish, nuts, and certain grains like flax seed. Since krill oil naturally contains higher levels of these beneficial nutrients, it has also been found to provide a number of health benefits.
Numerous studies have linked the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and krill oil to cardiovascular health, finding that those who ingest higher levels of these nutrients are at lower risk for coronary heart disease, potentially lower risk of stroke, and have lower cholesterol levels. Another study found that krill oil supplements offer a safe alternative to fish oil for those seeking cardiovascular benefits in a smaller and more convenient form.
Krill oil supplementation has also been found to help reduce the symptoms of knee and joint pain.
Additionally, researches found that rats given krill oil supplements showed improved cognitive function and benefited from anti-depressant-like effects. However, more research on its effect for human brain development and function is needed.
How to Choose the Right Krill Oil Supplement
When shopping for a krill oil supplement, there are important pieces of information that you should always look for. Here are some tips on how to compare brands and how to read labels.
What to Look For
For any supplement, always check to see if it has undergone third-party lab testing for quality and safety. This is especially important for any fish or krill oil to make sure that it does not contain any harmful compounds like mercury.
Look for the amount of krill oil contained in each capsule and each serving (as these will sometimes differ). You should choose supplements that offer between 200 mg and 350 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving for the best results.
Make it a priority to learn where the brand sources its supply of krill oil. We recommend brands that use sustainably-harvested Antarctic krill oil because the process of harvesting is more tightly regulated by various groups.
This is good advice for all nutritional supplements, but be sure the krill oil you choose does not contain any unwanted or unnecessary ingredients. All of our recommendations contain just the krill oil and the capsule it comes in.
How to Read Labels
When you are comparing krill oil supplements, here are some key things to look for on any label:
- Supplement Facts - This is where you can find information on the amount of krill oil in each capsule, how many capsules make up one serving, and a breakdown of how many omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients are contained in the supplement.
- Other Ingredients - Listed at the bottom of the supplement facts table, this list will tell you what the capsule itself is made of and if there are any additional ingredients present.
- Certifications - Check the label for important certifications and seals of approvals that can tell you if a krill oil is IKOS-certified, third-party lab tested, or sustainably harvest.
How to Use Krill Oil Supplements
Krill oil supplements typically come in capsules that you swallow with water. For most brands, 2 to 3 capsules make up a single serving, and you can take a serving either once or twice per day. Some brands recommend their supplements be taken with food to aid in their digestion and absorption.
Safety & Side Effects
While krill oil supplements are generally considered safe for most adults, it is extremely important to note that you should not take krill oil if you are allergic to shellfish. The potential side effects for krill oil are considered mild and similar to fish oils, including:
- Upset stomach
- Fishy taste
By John R. Platt
Humans and whales have a complex relationship.
We've hunted whales for food for centuries, celebrated them in our art and culture, admired their familial relationships and songs, and even worshipped them as gods.
But at the same time, we've overhunted multiple whale species to the brink of extinction, overfished their prey, poisoned their bodies and habitats, and scarred or killed them with our oceanic vessels.
While we've made great strides on many of those fronts, there's still a lot to do and many reasons to worry. Here are some of them, followed by an archive of related stories from The Revelator:
1. We're Still Discovering What's Out There — and What's Not
You'd think a large species like a whale would be easy to find.
Several new cetacean species have been discovered in the past few years, most recently the rarely seen Rice's whale in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously thought to be a subspecies of the Bryde's whale, the newly recognized species was identified just in time. Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 Rice's whales remain — perhaps as few as 60 — and say the species is critically endangered.
Similarly, it's often hard to realize what we're losing in the vast expanses of the ocean. In part that's because whales are hard to count — especially dead ones. While many whale carcasses wash up on beaches, most sink to the bottom of the ocean or are consumed by scavengers. That presents a challenge to understanding how many whales are being killed or, if we do find a body, how they died. This has important conservation implications. For example, recent research suggests we're undercounting the deaths of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales by 64% — and that's one of the world's most heavily monitored whale species, which all too often die after being struck by shipping vessels.
North Atlantic right whales. Sea to Shore Alliance / NOAA, under NOAA permit #15488
Speaking of which…
2. Ships vs. Whales
Globalization means more and more gigantic shipping vessels traversing the globe every day, where they can cross into whale feeding grounds or through migratory routes.
And when a ship strikes a whale, it's not the ship that loses.
Kees Torn / CC BY-SA 2.0
Most recently, necropsies revealed that at least two gray whales found dead near San Francisco Bay had been injured by ships, while an injured humpback whale was observed near Vancouver. Similar stories play out regularly around the globe.
And it's not just big ships. Fishing vessels of all sizes pose threats, either directly or through lost fishing gear. This April a research drone captured footage of a baby gray whale entangled in fishing line, dragging a buoy behind it.
3. Climate Change Comes Calling
Warming oceans pose multiple threats to whales, some of which relate once again to the shipping industry. In recent years the industry has rushed to newly ice-free waters in the Arctic, bringing with them noise, pollution and other harmful changes.
Additional threats from climate change continue to emerge, and exactly what's happening isn't always clear. One recent study found that a population of bowhead whales failed to make its annual autumn migration away from solid ice in the Bering Sea, but the reason remains undiscovered. One theory is that warming waters could have resulted in an increase in their food supply. Another theory suggests changing temperatures could have allowed more killer whales to block the bowheads' migration.
Similarly, climate change has resulted in decreased herring abundance in Quebec's Gulf of St. Lawrence, and this loss of food has resulted in fewer humpback whale pregnancies coming to term.
Meanwhile, there's a big reason to protect whales from climate change: their very existence helps protect us from climate change. Their feces help feed phytoplankton, which photosynthesize and absorb carbon dioxide before dying, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and sequestering that world-changing greenhouse gas. Whale bodies, similarly, also store an enormous amount of carbon that can be sequestered when they die.
4. Plastic: A Painful Threat
When whales accidentally consume plastic waste that they find floating in the ocean, the results can be deadly — either immediately or over time.
All too often, investigations into the cause of whale deaths find plastic to blame. One of the most recent examples occurred in Bangladesh, where two dead whales washed up near a resort town in April. "Primarily we think the two have died from consuming plastic and polluted objects," Jahirul Islam, executive director of Marine Life Alliance, told AFP.
And remember that new whale species that was just discovered? One of the reasons we know the species exists is because a carcass washed up near the Florida Everglades in 2019. Scientists found that it was killed by a tiny, 2.5-inch piece of jagged plastic that lodged in its stomach and caused internal bleeding and necrosis.
Smaller plastic particles may also have health implications for whales in even the most remote locations. A study published in 2020 found that seven beluga whales harvested by Inuvialuit hunters all had plastic fibers and fragments in their digestive systems. All the particles were what's considered microplastic, smaller than 5 millimeters in size. These may not be immediately fatal, but nearly half of the particles contained chemicals that could cause potential health problems, much like they could in humans. The risks whales may face from microplastics remains a field of active scientific investigation, with hundreds of papers published in just the past year.
A team of specially trained NOAA rescuers successfully free a humpback whale from a life-threatening tangle of fishing gear off the Kona Coast of Hawaii. R. Finn / NOAA MMHSRP permit #932-1905
Larger plastic waste, such as lost or discarded fishing lines and nets, poses an even bigger threat. "Imagine walking around with weights tied to your ankles," researcher Greg Merrill recently wrote in New Security Beat. "Whales struggle to get untangled from large nets and they end up dragging this weight along with them, expending extra energy they need to migrate and raise their young. An increasingly common tragedy is when whales become so overburdened by the weight of the plastic debris they cannot surface to breathe and drown."
5. Public Perception Still Lags
People generally love whales and support their conservation, but how much do they really know about whales and the threats the face?
Not much, it turns out.
A recent scientific survey found that the majority of people cared about legislation to protect whales, but at the same time they didn't know much about various whale or cetacean species. The researchers found that people thought common species such as bottlenose dolphins needed the most protection, didn't know about some of the most endangered species such as the vaquita, and believed more countries actively engaged in whaling than really do today.
Perhaps most strikingly, the survey presented people with the names of several fictional whale species (like the "pygmy short-finned whale"), which respondents said they believed needed protection more than real at-risk species.
This might not seem like a huge problem at first, but the future of whale conservation may rely once again upon grassroots efforts from caring citizens. As the researchers concluded, "A lack of awareness of the conservation status of whales and dolphins and continued whaling activities suggests that greater outreach to the public about the conservation status of whale and dolphin species is needed."
Reposted with permission from the Revelator.
By Lara O'Brien and Shannon Brines
Balloons are often seen as fun, harmless decorations. But they become deadly litter as soon as they are released into the air and forgotten.
Plastic pollution is one of today's biggest environmental challenges. Microplastics have been found in our drinking water, food and even the air we breathe. While many people are trying to reduce their use of single-use plastic bags, bottles, utensils and straws, balloons are often overlooked.
To help bring attention to the environmental dangers of released balloons, one of us (Lara O'Brien) created a citizen science survey to track and map balloon debris. This work is designed to raise awareness about the dangers of balloons, while also gathering data to help influence policies regulating celebratory balloon releases.
Balloons Cause Many Kinds of Damage
Deliberate releases of tens, hundreds or sometimes thousands of balloons are common sights at weddings, graduations, memorials, sporting events and other celebrations. These fleeting feel-good acts inflict long-lasting and potentially deadly consequences on the environment and wildlife.
Balloon release at the #indy500 as “Back Home Again in Indiana” is performed by the great Jim Cornelison! https://t.co/23QqdVhyLa— CBS4 Indy (@CBS4 Indy)1558888933.0
Balloons filled with helium – a finite and rapidly dwindling resource – travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. They land as litter on beaches, rivers, lakes, oceans, forests and other natural areas.
The two most common types of balloons are Mylar and latex. Mylar balloons, also called foil balloons, are made from plastic nylon sheets with a metallic coating and will never biodegrade. They also cause thousands of power outages every year when they come into contact with power lines or circuit breakers.
While some manufacturers claim that natural latex balloons made from liquid rubber are biodegradable, they still take years to break down because they are mixed with plasticizers and other chemical additives that hinder the biodegradation process. Other latex balloons are synthetic, made from a petroleum derivative called neoprene – the same material used to make scuba diving wetsuits – and will remain in the environment indefinitely, breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces over time.
Both Mylar and latex balloons are a significant threat to wildlife, livestock and pets, which can be injured or killed from eating balloon fragments, getting tangled in long balloon ribbons or strings, or being spooked by the falling debris.
Latex Shreds: A Deadly Meal
Unlike Mylar balloons, latex balloons burst in the atmosphere, shredding into small pieces that, when floating on the surface of water, resemble jellyfish or squid. Plastic debris in the ocean can also become coated with algae and other marine microbes that produce a chemical scent, which sea turtles, seabirds, fish and other marine life associate with food. Because they are soft and malleable, latex balloons easily conform to an animal's stomach cavity or digestive tract and can cause obstruction, starvation and death.
As a result, latex balloons are the deadliest form of marine debris for seabirds. They are 32 times more likely to kill than hard plastics when ingested. Balloons tied with ribbons and strings also rank just behind discarded fishing gear and plastic bags and utensils due to the high risk of entanglement and death that they pose to marine life.
Volunteers Track Debris in Real Time
Environmental organizations are working to both clean up and record data on plastic pollution and marine debris, including balloons. Between 2016 and 2018, volunteers with the Alliance for the Great Lakes picked up and recorded more than 18,000 pieces of balloon debris. In 2019 the International Coastal Cleanup, an annual event organized by the Ocean Conservancy, recorded over 104,150 balloons found around the world, with almost half in the U.S.
Utilizing citizen science as a way to collect more data and help raise awareness in the Great Lakes region and beyond, Lara O'Brien created an online survey in June 2019 that people can use to record the date, location, condition and photo of balloon debris. The survey is completely anonymous and can be easily accessed on a smartphone, so users can document balloon debris they find while walking the dog, hiking or participating in a beach cleanup.
Since the survey began, citizen scientists have helped record more than 1,580 pieces of balloon debris found in an area stretching from remote Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior to Sandbanks Provincial Park in Lake Ontario. Surveys and photos have also been submitted from Washington state, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Kansas, Florida, Iceland and the United Kingdom.
For interactive map of balloon debris sightings submitted since June 2019, see Balloondebris.org.
The most important feature of this survey allows volunteers to pinpoint and submit the exact GPS coordinates of balloon debris in real time. This geospatial data is immediately uploaded onto an interactive map that clearly and powerfully shows where released balloons end up, and how prevalent and widespread balloon waste is. It helps researchers see emerging patterns or trends that might be present, including potential hotspots where higher concentrations of balloon debris may occur.
In the U.S., balloons float eastward with prevailing west-to-east winds. In the Great Lakes region, higher concentrations of balloon debris have been reported along the eastern shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron. This includes the Indiana Dunes National Park southeast of Chicago, where volunteers regularly come across balloons. One person reported finding 84 balloons in a single morning along a two-mile stretch of beach.
For interactive heat map showing where the greatest concentrations of balloon debris in the Great Lakes region have been found since June 2019, see Balloondebris.org.
Ending Balloon Pollution
Thanks to research like this and work by organizations such as Balloons Blow, the Alliance for the Great Lakes and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, awareness of balloon pollution is growing. More people are choosing to use alternatives and urging schools, businesses and other organizations to stop balloon releases.
A growing movement across the U.S. is calling for more policies and laws restricting or eliminating single-use plastics, including balloons. California, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia have all passed laws prohibiting the deliberate release of balloons in order to protect the environment and wildlife. Others, including Maryland, Kentucky and Arizona, are considering similar bans.
Volunteers who want to collect data and map the location of balloon debris in their communities may visit the project's page on the citizen science site SciStarter or at balloondebris.org. There they can find links to the survey, interactive maps, photos, suggestions for eco-friendly alternatives and more. By helping people visualize and understand balloon pollution, we hope to prevent future balloon releases.
Lara O'Brien is a master's degree candidate in conservation ecology and environmental informatics at the University of Michigan.
Shannon Brines is an applied geographer, lecturer and manager with the Environmental Spatial Analysis Laboratory, University of Michigan.
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
By Alexandra McInturf and Matthew Savoca
Trillions of barely visible pieces of plastic are floating in the world's oceans, from surface waters to the deep seas. These particles, known as microplastics, typically form when larger plastic objects such as shopping bags and food containers break down.
Researchers are concerned about microplastics because they are minuscule, widely distributed and easy for wildlife to consume, accidentally or intentionally. We study marine science and animal behavior, and wanted to understand the scale of this problem. In a newly published study that we conducted with ecologist Elliott Hazen, we examined how marine fish – including species consumed by humans – are ingesting synthetic particles of all sizes.
In the broadest review on this topic that has been carried out to date, we found that, so far, 386 marine fish species are known to have ingested plastic debris, including 210 species that are commercially important. But findings of fish consuming plastic are on the rise. We speculate that this could be happening both because detection methods for microplastics are improving and because ocean plastic pollution continues to increase.
Solving the Plastics Puzzle
It's not news that wild creatures ingest plastic. The first scientific observation of this problem came from the stomach of a seabird in 1969. Three years later, scientists reported that fish off the coast of southern New England were consuming tiny plastic particles.
Since then, well over 100 scientific papers have described plastic ingestion in numerous species of fish. But each study has only contributed a small piece of a very important puzzle. To see the problem more clearly, we had to put those pieces together.
We did this by creating the largest existing database on plastic ingestion by marine fish, drawing on every scientific study of the problem published from 1972 to 2019. We collected a range of information from each study, including what fish species it examined, the number of fish that had eaten plastic and when those fish were caught. Because some regions of the ocean have more plastic pollution than others, we also examined where the fish were found.
For each species in our database, we identified its diet, habitat and feeding behaviors – for example, whether it preyed on other fish or grazed on algae. By analyzing this data as a whole, we wanted to understand not only how many fish were eating plastic, but also what factors might cause them to do so. The trends that we found were surprising and concerning.
A Global Problem
Our research revealed that marine fish are ingesting plastic around the globe. According to the 129 scientific papers in our database, researchers have studied this problem in 555 fish species worldwide. We were alarmed to find that more than two-thirds of those species had ingested plastic.
One important caveat is that not all of these studies looked for microplastics. This is likely because finding microplastics requires specialized equipment, like microscopes, or use of more complex techniques. But when researchers did look for microplastics, they found five times more plastic per individual fish than when they only looked for larger pieces. Studies that were able to detect this previously invisible threat revealed that plastic ingestion was higher than we had originally anticipated.
Our review of four decades of research indicates that fish consumption of plastic is increasing. Just since an international assessment conducted for the United Nations in 2016, the number of marine fish species found with plastic has quadrupled.
Similarly, in the last decade alone, the proportion of fish consuming plastic has doubled across all species. Studies published from 2010-2013 found that an average of 15% of the fish sampled contained plastic; in studies published from 2017-2019, that share rose to 33%.
We think there are two reasons for this trend. First, scientific techniques for detecting microplastics have improved substantially in the past five years. Many of the earlier studies we examined may not have found microplastics because researchers couldn't see them.
Second, it is also likely that fish are actually consuming more plastic over time as ocean plastic pollution increases globally. If this is true, we expect the situation to worsen. Multiple studies that have sought to quantify plastic waste project that the amount of plastic pollution in the ocean will continue to increase over the next several decades.
While our findings may make it seem as though fish in the ocean are stuffed to the gills with plastic, the situation is more complex. In our review, almost one-third of the species studied were not found to have consumed plastic. And even in studies that did report plastic ingestion, researchers did not find plastic in every individual fish. Across studies and species, about one in four fish contained plastics – a fraction that seems to be growing with time. Fish that did consume plastic typically had only one or two pieces in their stomachs.
In our view, this indicates that plastic ingestion by fish may be widespread, but it does not seem to be universal. Nor does it appear random. On the contrary, we were able to predict which species were more likely to eat plastic based on their environment, habitat and feeding behavior.
For example, fishes such as sharks, grouper and tuna that hunt other fishes or marine organisms as food were more likely to ingest plastic. Consequently, species higher on the food chain were at greater risk.
We were not surprised that the amount of plastic that fish consumed also seemed to depend on how much plastic was in their environment. Species that live in ocean regions known to have a lot of plastic pollution, such as the Mediterranean Sea and the coasts of East Asia, were found with more plastic in their stomachs.
WATCH: People are ingesting plastic from drinking water but also through foods like shellfish, which tends to be ea… https://t.co/cKgzBYx2CF— Reuters (@Reuters)1608093600.0
Effects of a Plastic Diet
This is not just a wildlife conservation issue. Researchers don't know very much about the effects of ingesting plastic on fish or humans. However, there is evidence that that microplastics and even smaller particles called nanoplastics can move from a fish's stomach to its muscle tissue, which is the part that humans typically eat. Our findings highlight the need for studies analyzing how frequently plastics transfer from fish to humans, and their potential effects on the human body.
Our review is a step toward understanding the global problem of ocean plastic pollution. Of more than 20,000 marine fish species, only roughly 2% have been tested for plastic consumption. And many reaches of the ocean remain to be examined. Nonetheless, what's now clear to us is that "out of sight, out of mind" is not an effective response to ocean pollution – especially when it may end up on our plates.
Disclosure statement: Alexandra McInturf is affiliated with The Ethogram. Matthew Savoca receives funding from The National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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The 20 ton juvenile male died Thursday on Seilebost beach on the Scottish Isle of Harris, CNN reported. The group Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme (SMASS), which performed the necropsy, discovered "a whole range of plastic including sections of net, bundles of rope, plastic cups, bags, gloves, packing straps and tubing," according to a Sunday Facebook post.
"All this material was in a huge ball in the stomach and some of it it looked like it had been there for some time," the group said.
The group said that it was possible the amount of debris in the whale's stomach led to its stranding, but they saw no evidence that it had actually obstructed its intestines.
"What was unusual in this case was the sheer volume," SMASS Director Andrew Brownlow told The New York Times in an email.
SMASS also noted that the variety of debris found in the whale's stomach, which included both fishing industry and consumer trash, highlighted the global nature of the plastic pollution problem. They wrote that the whale could have ingested the plastic anywhere between the Azores and Norway, and are now working to discover why this particular whale swallowed such a large amount.
Dan Parry, who runs a Facebook group dedicated to picking up litter on nearby Luskentyre beach, posted the first photos of the stranded whale.
"Debris in our oceans is everyone's problem - the fishing industry need to do better, but equally, we all need to do more," he wrote. "Watching this today, makes me despair for the environment, totally falling apart around us."
Later, he seemed to take his own advice, at least according to a Sunday post on the Facebook page he administers.
"After seeing the fishing debris pulled from the whale's stomach yesterday, we headed to the beach today to dig out another massive tangle of fishing related rope and net that we had spotted right up at high tide mark," the post read. "Couldn't believe how much was actually there. I feel much better knowing that this can no longer be washed into the ocean potentially killing more aquatic life."
SMASS said locally that whale and dolphin strandings in Scotland are on the rise, BBC News reported. There were 204 reported in 2009, which more than tripled to more than 930 in 2018.
But Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America in Massachusetts Executive Director Regina Asmutis-Silvia told The New York Times that only a tiny fraction of the whales who die end up stranded on the beach.
"Some studies suggest that strandings account for as few as 2 percent of the number of whales who actually died," she said. "And while this stranding certainly draws attention to marine debris, a problem that we can all certainly help to resolve, it should also draw attention to the loss of the whale, a key player in our own survival."
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By Tara Lohan
Our plastic pollution problem has reached new heights and new depths.
Scientists have found bits of plastic on the seafloor, thousands of feet below the ocean's surface. Plastic debris has also washed ashore on remote islands; traveled to the top of pristine mountains; and been found inside the bodies of whales, turtles, seabirds and people, too.
Tiny plastic particles are now ubiquitous and insidious. And the mounting pollution that swirls in ocean gyres and washes ashore on beaches poses a big threat to wildlife and ecosystems. So too, does the production of that plastic.
A number of recent studies — not to mention articles and essays published here in The Revelator — have helped pinpoint just how bad things have gotten and also what we can do about the problem. Here's what you should know about plastic:
1. There’s a lot of it.
In a September study published in Science about the growth of plastic waste, an international team of researchers estimated that 19 to 23 million metric tons — or 11% of plastic waste generated — ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016. And even with countries pledging to help cut waste or better manage it, the amount of plastic pollution is likely to double in the next 10 years.
A study about solutions to plastic waste, published in the same issue, attributed the plastic pollution epidemic to a rise in single-use plastic and "an expanding 'throw-away' culture." The researchers also found that waste-management systems simply can't deal with the onslaught of plastic, which is why so much of it ends up in the environment. We now know that only 9% of the plastic products we use actually get recycled.
2. The United States is a big culprit.
Plastic pollution is a global problem, but the United States plays an outsized role. In 2016 the United States was responsible for more plastic waste than any other country, a new study in Science Advances found. Some of that waste was dumped illegally within the country and some was shipped to other countries that lacked the necessary infrastructure to handle it.
"The amount of plastic waste generated in the United States estimated to enter the coastal environment in 2016 was up to five times larger than that estimated for 2010, rendering the United States' contribution among the highest in the world," the researchers concluded. Part of that is because the United States ranks second in exporting plastic scrap.
3. It threatens wildlife and ecosystems.
A giant otter plays with a plastic bottle. Paul Williams / CC BY-NC 2.0
Out of sight (for Americans) is not out of mind — and definitely not out of our waterways. An estimated 700 marine species and 50 freshwater species have either ingested plastic or been entangled in it.
"If we don't get the plastic pollution problem in the ocean under control, we threaten contaminating the entire marine food web, from phytoplankton to whales," George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy's chief scientist and coauthor of the September Science study about plastic waste's increase, told National Geographic. "And by the time the science catches up to this, perhaps definitively concluding that this is problematic, it will be too late. We will not be able to go back. That massive amount of plastic will be embedded in the ocean's wildlife essentially forever."
Microplastics have also been found in terrestrial animals, soil, drinking water and, not surprisingly, in our own bodies, although it's not clear yet just how dangerous that is for people.
4. The fracking boom is producing a plastic boom.
Despite the known risks of plastic pollution and concern over its mounting presence in the environment, plastic production — driven by fossil fuels like fracked gas and its component chemicals — is on pace to increase by 40% in the next 10 years.
The American Chemistry Council boasted that shale gas drilling is driving a surge in plastic production, including the investment of more than $200 billion to fund new and expanded operations at 343 production plants in the United States.
On the ground this means more harmful pollution along the Gulf Coast's "Cancer Alley," where petrochemicals have been manufactured for decades in low-wealth communities of color. And it means the build-out of new facilities in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Fracking also causes harmful greenhouse gas emissions, like methane, to be released into the atmosphere — amplifying the climate crisis. The refining process and the incineration of plastic waste also further drives greenhouse emissions and hazardous pollution.
A petrochemical plant in Houston's ship channel. Louis Vest / CC BY-NC 2.0
5. Solutions are multifaceted.
Beach cleanups tend to make headlines, but it's a losing battle as long as petrochemical companies keep producing so much plastic and we keep using plastic for products we're meant to toss after a single use.
The September study in Science on plastic solutions found that it's possible to cut plastic pollution — perhaps as much as 80% by 2040 — but it will take systemic change both in reducing the amount of plastic produced and in better managing the waste stream.
Regulatory efforts can help this process, including by regulating plastic as a pollution source under the Clean Water Act.
Efforts to ban single-use plastics, as the European Union aims to do by 2021, are another positive step. So too are "circular economy laws," which have been introduced, but not yet passed, in the United States.
These laws would halt the production of new petrochemical facilities and encourage businesses to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the products they produce by requiring them to be reused, adequately recycled or composted.
Getting circular economy laws enacted, though, will mean enough public and political will to counter the petrochemical, fossil fuel and plastic industries.
At The Revelator, we'll keep covering the push for solutions to the plastic problem and new science to better understand the threats. And if you want to know more about how wildlife has already been affected, what laws could help, whether industry will be held accountable and more, check out these stories from our archives:
Laws and Regulations
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
When the spill was first discovered Monday, it covered only three-fourths of a mile along Broadkill Beach, Delaware Now reported. However, the tides have extended the reach of the oil every day, spreading it along seven miles of Delaware Bay coastline by Tuesday and 11 by Wednesday.
"We are focused on cleanup operations and getting the oil off our beaches and out of our coastal communities as quickly as possible," Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Secretary Shawn Garvin said in a Wednesday press release. "Expediency is key. We want to capture as much of the oil as we can before it disperses further and causes more environmental harm."
DNREC is working under unified command with the U.S. Coast Guard to clean the spill, which now extends from Fowler Beach, which borders the Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge, to Cape Henlopen State Park. It was estimated initially that more than 215 gallons of oil had spilled, but the actual amount may be larger, CBS Philly reported.
The oil line from the spill now extends approximately 11 miles from Fowler Beach bordering Prime Hook National Wild… https://t.co/c4TfENSvGw— DNREC (@DNREC)1603230999.0
As of Tuesday, recovery efforts had removed around two tons of oily sand and debris, according to DNREC. There are currently more than 75 contractors, DNREC workers and Coast Guard members responding to the spill.
Approximately two tons of oily sand and debris was removed from the affected areas as of 7 p.m., Tuesday. https://t.co/bdCxr8ZNda— DNREC (@DNREC)1603311582.0
The spill has mostly taken the form of oil patties that range in size from a quarter to a manhole cover, the Coast Guard said Tuesday.
Cape Henlopen park watch volunteer Julie McCall got a first-hand view of the strange black blobs when she was conducting a bird count on Beach Plum Island Monday.
"On the way back, after the tide had gone out quite a bit, I started seeing these bigger patches, and I thought, 'That looks like oil,'" McCall told WHYY. "Some were bigger than my foot."
The Coast Guard said it would use the blobs to try and determine the source of the spill.
"Working with our partners at DNREC and state agencies, we will continue to monitor the future potential to the Broadkill Beach area, continue cleanup operations and conduct an investigation to try and determine the source," Capt. Jonathan Theel, the commanding officer of Sector Delaware Bay, said in a press release.
However, officials think the oil is probably heavy fuel oil that leaked from a vessel, WHYY reported.
McCall said she was worried about how the oil would impact people and animals.
"It's very scary," she told WHYY. "Of course, we're always concerned about the marine animals, and any kind of toxic material in the water. I'm also concerned about birds, any kind of wildlife. A lot of people fish at Beach Plum Island and people walk their dogs and there are kids on the beach. So I'm concerned about exposure to people and animals."
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By David Duffy and Catherine Eastman
Plastic pollution has been found in practically every environment on the planet, with especially severe effects on ocean life. Plastic waste harms marine life in many ways – most notably, when animals become entangled in it or consume it.
We work as scientists and rehabilitators at The Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience and Sea Turtle Hospital at the University of Florida. Our main focus is on sea turtle diseases that pose conservation threats, such as fibropapillomatosis tumor disease.
However, it's becoming increasingly hard to ignore evidence that plastic pollution poses a growing, hidden threat to the health of endangered sea turtles, particularly our youngest patients. In a newly published study, we describe how we examined 42 post-hatchling loggerhead sea turtles that stranded on beaches in Northeast Florida. We found that almost all of them had ingested plastic in large quantities.
An Ocean of Plastic
Ocean plastic pollution originates mostly from land-based sources, such as landfills and manufacturing plants. One recent study estimates that winds carry 200,000 tons of tiny plastic particles from degraded tires alone into the oceans every year.
Plastics are extremely durable, even in salt water. Materials that were made in the 1950s, when plastic mass production began, are still persisting and accumulating in the oceans. Eventually these objects disintegrate into smaller fragments, but they may not break down into their chemical components for centuries.
Overall, some 11 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. This amount is projected to grow to 29 million tons by 2040.
A Microplastic Diet
Many forms of plastic threaten marine life. Sea turtles commonly mistake floating bags and balloons for their jellyfish prey. Social media channels are replete with videos and images of sea turtles with plastic straws stuck in their nostrils, killed in plastic-induced mass mortality events, or dying after ingesting hundreds of plastic fragments.
So far, however, scientists don't know a lot about the prevalence and health effects of plastic ingestion in vulnerable young sea turtles. In our study, we sought to measure how much plastic was ingested by post-hatchling washback sea turtles admitted to our rehabilitation hospital.
Post-hatchling washbacks are recently hatched baby turtles that successfully travel from their nesting beaches out to the open ocean and start to feed, but are then washed back to shore due to strong winds or ill health. This is a crucial life stage: Turtles need to feed to recover from their frenzied swim to feeding grounds hundreds of miles offshore. Feeding well also helps them grow large enough to avoid most predators.
Post-hatchling sea turtle being treated at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, CC BY-ND
We examined 42 dead washbacks, and found that 39 of them, or 93%, had ingested plastic – often in startling quantities. A majority of it was hard fragments, most commonly colored white.
One turtle that weighed 48 grams or 1.6 ounces – roughly equivalent to 16 pennies – had ingested 287 plastic pieces. Another hatchling that weighed just 27 grams, or less than one ounce, had ingested 119 separate pieces of plastic that totaled 1.23% of its body weight. The smallest turtle in our study, with a shell just 4.6 centimeters (1.8 inches) long, had ingested a piece of plastic one-fourth the length of its shell.
Consuming such large quantities of plastic increases the likelihood that broken-down plastic nanoparticles or chemicals that leach from them will enter turtles' bloodstreams, with unknown health effects. Ingested plastic can also block turtles' stomachs or intestines. At a minimum, it limits the amount of space that's physically available for consuming and digesting genuine prey that they need to survive and grow.
Turtles at this life stage live at the ocean's surface, sheltering in floating mats of seaweed, where they feed on invertebrate prey such as zooplankton. These floating seaweed mats gather in the Atlantic, in an area known as the Sargasso Sea, which is bounded by four major ocean currents and covers much of the central Atlantic Ocean. The area is heavily polluted with plastic, as both seaweed and plastic travel on and are concentrated by the same ocean currents. Our study suggests that these baby turtles are mistakenly feeding on plastic floating in and around the seaweed.
The Sargasso Sea is an important feeding ground for immature Atlantic sea turtles, but the same currents that concentrate seaweed there also carry drifting plastic trash. University of Florida, CC BY-ND
Post-hatchling sea turtles are young and need to feed and grow rapidly. This means they are particularly at risk from the harmful consequences of ingesting plastic. We find it especially troubling that almost all of the animals we assessed had ingested plastic in such large quantities. Plastic pollution is only one of many human-related threats that these charismatic and endangered creatures face at sea.
Stemming the Plastic Tsunami
Since plastic persists for hundreds of years in the environment, clearing it from the oceans will require ingenious cleanup technologies, as well as lower-tech beach and shore cleanups. But in our view, the top priority should be curbing the rampant flow of plastic that is swamping oceans and coasts.
Earth's ecosystems, especially the oceans, are interconnected, so reducing plastic waste will require global solutions. They include improving methods for recycling plastics; developing bio-based plastics; banning single-use plastic items in favor of more sustainable or reusable alternatives; and reducing shipment of plastic waste abroad to countries with lax regulatory regimes, from where it is more likely to enter the environment.
Our observations in post-hatchling turtles are part of a growing body of research showing how plastic pollution is harming wildlife. We believe it is time for humanity to face up to its addiction to plastic, before we find ourselves wading through swathes of plastic debris and wondering what went wrong.
David Duffy is an assistant professor of wildlife disease genomics at the University of Florida.
Catherine Eastman is the Sea Turtle Hospital program coordinator at the Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, University of Florida.
Disclosure statements: David Duffy receives funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation, the National Save the Sea Turtle Foundation, the European Union, and the Florida Sea Turtle Grants Program. He is affiliated with Wildlife Rehabilitation Ireland, a registered charity. Catherine Eastman receives funding from the Florida Sea Turtle Grants Program.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Ute Eberle
In May 2017, shells started washing up along the Ligurian coast in Italy. They were small and purple and belonged to a snail called Janthina pallida that is rarely seen on land. But the snails kept coming — so many that entire stretches of the beach turned pastel.
An unusual wind pattern had beached the animals. And for the people who walked the shore, this offered a rare encounter with a wondrous ecosystem that most of us have never heard about: The neuston.
The neuston, from the Greek word for swimming, refers to a group of animals, plants and microorganisms that spend all or large parts of their life floating in the top few centimeters of the ocean.
It's a mysterious world that even experts still know little about. But recently, it has been the source of tensions between a project trying to clean up the sea by skimming plastic trash off its surface, and marine biologists who say this could destroy the neuston.
The Ligurian coast has been swept by snails turning its color pastel.
A World Between Worlds
The neuston comprises a multitude of weird and wonderful creatures.
Many, like the Portuguese man-of-war, which paralyzes its prey with venomous tentacles up to 30 meters long, are colored an electric shade of blue, possibly to protect themselves against the sun's UV rays, or as camouflages against predators.
There are also by-the-wind sailors, flattish creatures that raise chitin shields from the water like sails; slugs known as sea dragons that cling to the water's surface from below with webbed appendages; barnacles that build bubble rafts as big as dinner plates; and the world's only marine insects, a relation of the pond skater.
They live "between the worlds" of the sea and sky, as Federico Betti, a marine biologist at the University of Genoa, puts it. From below, predators lurk. From above, the sun burns. Winds and waves toss them about. Depending on the weather, their environment may be warm or cool, salty or less so.
Sea snails can make up the neuston.
Velella velella jellyfish living on the surface of the ocean.
But now, they face another — manmade — threat from nets designed to catch trash. A project called The Ocean Cleanup, run by Dutch inventor Boyan Slat, has raised millions of dollars in donations and sponsorship to deploy long barriers with nets that will drift across the ocean in open loops to sweep up floating garbage.
Collecting With the Current
"Plastic could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050. To us, that future is unacceptable," The Ocean Cleanup declares on its website.
But Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at the University of North Carolina, and one of the few scientists to study this ecosystem, fears that The Ocean Cleanup's proposal to remove 90% of the plastic trash from the water could also virtually wipe out the neuston.
One focus of Helm's studies is where these organisms congregate. "There are places that are very, very concentrated and areas of little concentration, and we're trying to figure out why," says Helm.
One factor is that the neuston floats with ocean currents, and Helm worries that it might collect in the exact same spots as marine plastic pollution. "Our initial data show that regions with high concentrations of plastic are also regions with high concentrations of life."
Waste collection in the Pacific Ocean heralded by The Ocean Cleanup.
The Ocean Cleanup says Helm's concerns are based on "misguided assumptions."
"It's true that neustonic organisms will be trapped in the barriers," says Gerhard Herndl, professor of Aquatic Biology at the University of Vienna and one of project's scientific advisors. "But these organisms have dangerous lives. They're adapted to high losses because they get washed ashore in storms and they have high reproductive rates. If they didn't, they'd already be extinct."
Helm says they just don't know how quickly these creatures reproduce, and in any case recovering from passing storm is very different from surviving The Ocean Clean Up's systems which could be in place for years.
The Ocean Cleanup invited Helm to a symposium on the topic in December, where both sides presented their points of views and didn't seem to find much common ground. Since then, direct communication between them has stopped, says Helm. "They're not interested in talking to me anymore."
Both sides agree that much is still unknown about the neuston. But one thing that has been established is that most of the oceans' fish spend part of their lifecycle in the neuston. "More than 90% of marine fish species produce floating eggs that persist on the surface until hatching," Betti says.
The Ocean Cleanup has undertaken one of the few studies into this ecosystem, collecting data on the neuston on the relative abundance of neuston and floating plastic debris in the eastern North Pacific Ocean during a 2019 expedition to the Pacific Garbage Patch, an area where plastic pollution has accumulated on a vast scale. But it is not yet sharing what it has found. The information was being prepared for publication in an as of yet unspecified journal, probably some time next year, an Ocean Cleanup spokesperson said.
Helm believes the best way to tackle the marine plastic problem would be to position the barriers closer to land — across river mouths and bays — to catch garbage before it reaches the sea.
"Stopping the flow of plastic into the ocean is the most cost-effective — and literally effective — way to ensure that it's not entering our environment," she says.
As for the plastic already floating in open waters, she does not believe it is worth sacrificing parts of neuston and wants to see more research first.
The Ocean Cleanup has made barriers across rivers a part of its mission. But it is also going ahead with its original vision of pulling trash from the open water. In late 2018, the project deployed a 600-meter, u-shaped prototype net into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The system ran into difficulties, failing to retain plastic as hoped, and needing to be brought shore for repairs and a design upgrade, after which Ocean Cleanup says it gathered haul of plastic that it will recycle and resell to help fund future operations.
Over the next two years, the project hopes to deploy up to 60 such barriers to collect drifting flotsam. Helm isn't the only one concerned about these plans.
"We should think twice about every action we take in the sea," Betti says. "In nature, nothing is as easy as we think, and often, we've done a lot of damage while trying to do a good thing."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
By Loveday Wright and Stuart Braun
After a Japanese-owned oil tanker struck a reef off Mauritius on July 25, a prolonged period of inaction is threatening to become an ecological disaster.
Carrying nearly 4,000 metric tons of fuel oil, the tanker ran aground near Pointe d'Esny on the island in the Indian Ocean.
"Local authorities failed to do enough to prevent what is now the worst ecological disaster in Mauritius," blogger Ish Sookun wrote in a post on August 8. "They started putting buoys and barriers to protect the shore only after the first signs of the oil spill became apparent."
#Wakashio has been wrecked near the #Mauritian lagoon of Pointe d'Esny for the past 12 days. No visibly concrete ac… https://t.co/CuOQK1s7GS— The Logical Mauritian (@The Logical Mauritian)1596708701.0
By Tuesday, over two weeks after the accident, more than 1,000 tons of fuel had leaked from a crack in the vessel's hull, with the Mauritius government declaring a state of environmental emergency.
French President Emmanuel Macron responded to calls for international help, sending military aircraft from the neighboring island of Reunion carrying pollution-control equipment and a naval vessel carrying booms and absorbents. According to Mitsui OSK Lines, the company that owns the vessel, some 1,000 tons of oil have been recovered from the ship, and a further 500 from the water. Around 1,500 tons remain on board.
"Thousands of species around the pristine lagoons of Blue Bay, Pointe d'Esny and Mahebourg are at risk of drowning in a sea of pollution, with dire consequences for Mauritius' economy, food security and health," said Greenpeace in a statement.
The community has taken matters into its own hands, with hundreds of volunteers building sugar cane pulp buoys and placing them in the water "to try to absorb and contain the oil which had already spread in our lagoons," Sookun reported.
The #oilspill is devastating but I want to honour the community mobilisation at the Mahebourg waterfront today (to… https://t.co/UWFkZFdjdi— Fabiola Monty (@Fabiola Monty)1596815930.0
"Booms are made of nylon mesh filled with #sugarcane straws all hand-stitched by Mauritian volunteers, empty plastic bottles used as buoys," described Mauritian journalist Zeenat Hansrod in a tweet.
Floating #booms are used as barriers to contain the #Wakashio #oilspill in #Mauritius #IleMaurice In BlueBay, Point… https://t.co/chpuauutrW— zeenat hansrod (@zeenat hansrod)1596955175.0
How to Tackle Oil Spills
The method for tackling oil spills depends on several factors, including the type and amount of oil in question, location and weather conditions.
"Once the oil comes to shore, the more intensive the cleaning technique. You can risk causing further damage," said Nicky Cariglia, an independent consultant at Marittima, who specializes in marine pollution.
"If you wanted to remove all traces of oil, the techniques available become increasingly aggressive the less oil that remains. In mangroves, you would have the added risk of causing damage by trampling," Cariglia told DW. Highly sensitive mangrove ecosystems line the Mauritius east coast that is threatened by the current spill.
Because oil normally has a lower density than water, it floats on the surface of the ocean. This means that for clean-up action to be most effective, it should happen very quickly after a spill, before the oil disperses.
1. Scooping It All Up
One method of controlling oil spills at sea, which was used after the Grande America cargo vessel sank in March 2019 some 300 kilometers (186 miles) off the French coast, is essentially scooping up the oil from the water's surface.
This is done using so-called booms, which act like a barrier to prevent the oil from spreading. Once it's contained, boats equipped with so-called skimmer machines can suck up the oil and separate it from the water. After being processed, the oil can even be re-used.
It seems like a simple method, but it only works when the oil is in one place — and under the right conditions.
"Encountering enough oil can be difficult," said response adviser Cariglia. When that's the case, the specialized vessels needed for the process can also make this an expensive and logistically challenging method.
2. Burning Oil Off Water
In certain conditions, burning the oil off the water's surface can be the most appropriate method. In arctic or ice-covered waters, for example, it might be the only option.
In situ burning (ISB) would also be used to tackle an uncontrolled oil leak, where a lot of oil is spilling fast. When the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig caught fire and sank in April 2010, oil gushed from the seabed causing the largest accidental oil spill in history. ISB proved to be a highly effective technique in responding to the disaster.
But the method also produces toxic fumes which can have a negative impact on the environment.
And it comes with challenges, too. "It can be difficult to herd enough oil to make it thick enough to burn," Cariglia said. "If the oil had dispersed over many days, it would not be an option."
3. Soaking Up Oil
Absorbents can be kinder to the environment: They act like a sponge to soak up the spilled oil. But they're more useful for clearing small amounts of oil on land, and are not usually effective in tackling a spill out at sea. In fact, employing these materials on the water can create further pollution.
"Recovering and disposing of these oiled materials requires a lot of energy," Cariglia said. "There's a risk that oiled debris will get lost at sea."
Experts also disagree over the effectiveness of different absorbent materials, which can range from natural products such as straw to highly engineered synthetics developed by scientists for the purpose of tackling oil spills.
Cariglia is wary of solutions purporting to suck up slicks. "It's not that they don't work," she said. "In lab experiments, they can work very well. But in real life, the oil has spread at sea."
4. Letting Nature Take Care of Itself
When the area of the oil spill is difficult to reach or very far out to sea, nature itself can help tackle the issue. Wind and waves will naturally disperse the oil over time, parts of it will evaporate, and naturally occurring microbes will also do their work to start breaking down the oil.
But this is a slow and unreliable process that needs to be closely monitored and "should not be confused with 'sitting down and doing nothing,'" according to Marine Insight, a maritime industry information site.
Chemical agents can also be used to aid this process. Cariglia is keen to allay environmental fears. "Toxicity tests are designed so that the only things that are approved are milder than the soap you would use at home," she told DW.
Though the dispersants themselves are not toxic, environmental problems can occur when they are used in sheltered or shallow locations. In that situation, using dispersants can mean that the oil spreads around more of the delicate marine environment. "For example, in locations where there are coral reefs, it would be better if the oil stayed on the surface," Cariglia said.
When it comes to tackling oil spills, she added, "there is no single miracle cure."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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This coming Saturday, Sept. 21 is the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC), the annual Ocean Conservancy event that mobilizes volunteers in more than 100 countries to collect litter from beaches and waterways and record what they find.
The organization is looking to build on last year's event, which was noteworthy for two reasons: It was the first time more than one million people participated, and it was the first time that plastic cutlery made the group's top 10 list of most collected items.
"We are so moved by the incredible turnout in 2018, and we are gearing up for another million-strong volunteers showing up this year," Ocean Conservancy CEO Janis Searles Jones said in a press release. "The ICC numbers speak for themselves: together, we can make a difference – for our community, for our coasts, and for our ocean."
THE NEWS IS OUT:— Ocean Conservancy (@OurOcean) September 4, 2019
In 2018, we had over 1 MILLION volunteers remove approximately 23 MILLION POUNDS of trash from coastlines and waterways around the world in just ONE DAY.
Check it out! 🌊https://t.co/ko1rkYEBT3
The ICC is unique in that it is not simply a litter pickup. It's also a massive data collection event that generates the world's largest database of marine trash. The yearly findings can help activists, scientists and policy makers discern what items to target in order to fight plastic pollution.
The prevalence of plastic knives, forks and spoons last year led the group to launch a Quit the Cutlery pledge, urging signers to take steps such as carrying reusable sporks and refusing plastic utensils when ordering takeout.
"Plastic forks, knives and spoons are ranked among the most harmful types of marine debris to ocean animals, and the 2018 ICC data show that they may be a lot more prevalent than we had previously suspected," Nicholas Mallos, senior director of Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas® program, said in the press release.
2018's top 10 list had other, broader lessons. Nine of the top 10 items were related to food and drink, as National Geographic pointed out.
In addition, many of the items were things like straws, bottle caps and lids that are not easily recyclable.
"If you run down the rest of the top ten list, what strikes me is that the vast majority are not recyclable. To the extent we talk about recycling as a solution to ocean plastic problems, it would have to get to 50 or 90 percent, which is a huge lift and gets complicated very quickly," Ocean Conservancy chief scientist George Leonard told National Geographic.
Around eight million metric tons of plastic enter the world's oceans every year, impacting more than 800 animal species. The Ocean Conservancy has been working on the problem of marine trash since 1986. Since that first ICC, more than 15 million volunteers have collected almost 315 million pounds of trash.
The organization won't know yet if 2019's turnout is on track to surpass last year's 1,080,358 volunteers, since volunteers typically register with local partners, ICC Director Allison Schutes explained in an email to EcoWatch. Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas, also put a damper on cleanups organized on the islands.
ICC works with around eight different groups in the Bahamas, which coordinate approximately 1,000 to 3,000 volunteers a year, ICC Outreach Manager Sarah Kollar told EcoWatch in an email. Most of those groups are now focused on offering relief to fellow Bahamians impacted by the storm, though they may reschedule cleanups for later in the year. The Ocean Conservancy is also in conversation with these groups to see what help it can provide.
"In past experiences with natural disasters impacting our ICC family, Ocean Conservancy has stepped in to provide funds to cover materials that other relief efforts may be short on, like generators, cleanup materials, and so on," Kollar said.
But, despite the tragedy in the Bahamas, the global outlook for the event is still positive.
"We are working with partners and volunteers around the world to continue the momentum, and have even seen a number of celebrities share the call to participate. We are optimistic this will be one of our biggest ICC's yet!" Schutes wrote.
We are all connected to the oceans which cover 70% of earths surface & produce 1/2 the air we breathe, oceans govern the world's weather & are to home a kaleidoscope of life ~ give back to the worlds oceans.~ volunteer on September 21st @ https://t.co/JjSiiS0s9I @OurOcean #ICC pic.twitter.com/r9chw1W9v5— Daryl Hannah (@dhlovelife) September 16, 2019
Anyone who wants to join a cleanup Saturday can sign up on the Ocean Conservancy website.
For those who want to litter pick but don't live near a river, lake or coast, Saturday is also World Cleanup Day, which started in Estonia in 2008 and amassed 18 million participates from 157 countries last year. It is organized by the membership-based group Let's Do It World. This year, the group is hoping for 30 million participants.
"Our focus during World Cleanup Day is to activate citizens to take action and become more aware of their surroundings, the trash around them and to change behaviours to become more environmentally aware," Heidi Solba, President and Head of Network of Let's Do It World, said in an email to EcoWatch.
Anyone interested can find out how to participate here.
633 Divers Break Record for World’s Largest Underwater Cleanup https://t.co/rwdw7vuFG0— Robb Edwards Ⓥ (@RobRobbEdwards) June 17, 2019