Plastic Pollution and Other Factors Threaten Oceans

Oceans are under siege from climate change, overfishing, and plastic pollution
Oceans are under siege from climate change, overfishing, and plastic pollution.

Plastic pollution, global warming, and overfishing are rapidly destroying marine life, reported Lisa Song of SolveClimate News from a recent meeting of the International Program on the State of the Ocean. This is the message that is getting louder as more experts voice their concerns about the conditions of the oceans.

The meeting brought together 27 scientists from six countries and was the first time in at least 10 years that experts from separate fields, such as geochemistry, fishery biology, and climate change, came together to share their observations and analyses of the state of the oceans.

But the scene wasn’t like a communal hug-fest, reported Song. In fact, the air at the University of Oxford meeting site was somber and worrying. With acidification and other effects of global warming compounded with overfishing and plastic debris, experts at the meeting said the next great mass extinction since the dinosaurs was waiting to happen in the oceans. As Song reports, “The impacts of climate change — acidifying oceans, coral bleaching and habitat loss — are the biggest cause of decline in ocean health, and the hardest to solve.”

But overfishing and plastic pollution are within our grasp to manage. Song quoted Tony Pitcher, a professor of fisheries from the University of British Columbia, who attended the meeting:

Over time, pieces of plastic get ground down to microscopic particles and ingested by filter-feeding organisms such as clams, krill and some fish and sharks. Pitcher said this in itself isn’t catastrophic, but endocrine disruptors like flame retardants stick to plastic and get eaten by the organisms. With time, those toxins make their way up the food chain.

We have a fair track record of restricting certain marine pollutants, said Pitcher.

There is some glimmer of hope in microorganisms that may break down the plastics, but even they may not be able to tackle the oceans full of plastic. The so-called biodegradable plastics have their own issues too, potentially contributing to climate change.

Song ended her piece on a sobering note. Even if marine plastic pollution is dramatically curbed, it’s impossible to reverse the conditions of the ocean’s deteriorating waters without halting overfishing and the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. It’s the combination of the three factors that is so devastating to the oceans.

Source: “Warming, Overfishing, Plastic Pollution Destroying Ocean Life: Scientists,” SolveClimate News, 06/29/11
Image by designatednaphour, used under its Creative Commons license.

Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.