The plague of the seas

Date posted: 7 March 2018

Choking, starving or poisoning. That’s what plastic litter is doing to marine life. Our understanding increases, and so does the horror

Hawksbill turtle eating plastic.

Not a day goes by without new scientific evidence making the headlines regarding the plastic plague that is enveloping our seas, like a virus with no known cure. Our oceans are sick and by humanising their plight with words that paint a terrifying picture we may be able to convey the gravity of the situation and bring it closer to home. Maybe then, the alarm of the conservation world will be taken seriously.

At first it was stranded starved animals with stomachs full of plastic telling us how lethal the light, sturdy and practical material we use everyday is, once out at sea. Then, with research progressing, the plot thickened and got gloomier. Plastics in the ocean are not just mistaken for food and ingested, they actually represent a toxic nightmare, that’s messing with mother nature. We know now that man-made chemicals cling to plastics, like the crew of a sunken ship clinging to a life raft. With an estimated 300 billion pieces of plastic floating in the Arctic Ocean alone, all acting like a toxic sponge to carcinogenic and endocrine disruptive chemicals like PCBs, BPAs and pesticides – our seas are facing horrors on an unprecedented scale. Animals that have survived for centuries in the remotest parts of the world are now playing a role in a real life drama – their bodies are being changed by an unseen enemy.

Polar bear
© Valerie Abbott/flickr
White Stalk in plastic
© John Cancalosi

Polar bears, for example, are not just up against climate change. Chemical pollutants have been found to weaken their immune system and are playing havoc with their reproductive cycle. Toxins cause female bears to become more masculine, whilst leaving the male’s penis bones fragile and at risk of breaking. A mating disaster.

Seal pups, irresistibly cute with their big sad eyes, are being born already affected by high levels of toxins like PCBs which have negatively impacted seal reproduction. And pups have reduced immunity due to the transfer of these chemicals from their mums, making them more vulnerable to infection. Hideously, spontaneous abortions in Californian sea lions have also been linked to these chemicals.

Albatrosses are amongst the known heroes of monogamy. They form lifelong partnerships, and after roaming the open seas in solitude they return to the same mate, in the same place, year after year, to raise their chicks. Pretty amazing. But for Sir David Attenborough they’re the protagonists of one of the most heart breaking images of Blue Planet II. He refers to a moment in which he witnessed an albatross mum and dad, returning from their long and arduous fishing expeditions, only to unload not sand eels, fish or squid, but… plastic. And the gallery of horrors continues. Billions of nurdles – the plastic pellets that are used in the plastic industry – are lost into the environment annually. They’re the same size and shape as fish eggs, and sadly, many species of seabird feed this toxic plastic to their chicks. Like the albatross, our very own fulmar population is also affected with plastics, including nurdles, being found in the digestive system of over 90% of sampled birds.

Last year the Ellen MacArthur Foundation produced a controversial report with some truly disturbing conclusions: the equivalent of one entire truck of plastic (8 tonnes) is dumped in the sea every minute and, in a business as usual scenario, by 2050 we might have more plastic than fish (by weight) in the sea. You don’t need to be a passionate diver or snorkeller to dread the horror of that moment. Clearly the biggest driver of this disaster lies with developing economies in Africa and Asia, for example. There is a reason why last summer the High Court in Kenya introduced jail time for anyone who buys or sells a plastic carrier bag. But here, in the UK, there is also a lot we can do. To start with, we can fix our own littering habits. Our yearly stats shockingly reveal (see the Great British Beach Clean Report that plastic litter on UK beaches is on the rise. The solutions are all known, readily available and economically viable. You will read about them on page 29. None will require us to adopt monastic lifestyles, filled with chicory and sandals. These solutions will get increasingly cheaper, and innovation will bring more on, as we increase the market for nature friendly products. And this should, in turn, provide a genuine contribution to the global issue as often it’s these very innovations that can be adopted in developing countries to address environmental issues. Examples abound: solar panels, windmills, mobile technology, etc.

So read on, dive in a sea of solutions and then, at the end of this journey, please support our campaign and help us petition for levies on single-use plastic. Let’s turn the tide on ocean plastic. Together.

This article was written for our winter 2017 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Join the Plastic Challenge
  2. Download our 'Living without single-use Plastic' guide

Did you know?…

Since the carrier bag charge came in across the UK, the Great British Beach Clean has recorded almost 50% fewer bags on beaches

Over time, one plastic bottle bobbing along in the ocean can break down in to hundreds of tiny plastic pieces

Globally, plastic litter has reached every part of the world’s oceans