But Earle, who served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the first Bush administration, also argued that there were things people could do to reverse things, by expanding marine sanctuaries, for example.
Today, some people are wondering about another threat to our oceans.
About 20 years ago, predictive reports began filtering in concerning a small-scale ecological disturbance in the making – if one took “small-scale” to mean Texas-sized, and “ecological disturbance” somehow implied raft of poisonous plastic particulates. But seeing as this isn’t the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, perhaps we can dispense with the euphemisms.
The raft was quickly dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it has become a very real problem. Created by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre, which circle slowly inward like an incredibly anticlimactic Charybdis, it has been gathering floating debris for quite some time. Prior to plastic, that debris was mostly plant matter, usually decomposing quickly and then sinking to the depths in the constant, organic snow that sustains ecosystems straight to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Over the past several decades, however, an influx of non-biodegradable, manmade material has created a floating layer of trash, trapped in the middle of the Pacific.
Runoff is a large source of the trash. Pollution (bottle caps, toys, plastic bags, tape dispensers, you name it) is washed from storm drains and shores into the ocean, where it is caught by the currents and deposited in the Garbage Patch. Cruise ships and freighters are also notorious contributors, dumping waste directly into the sea.
It is wreaking havoc on wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of seabirds, mammals and sea turtles are killed by the garbage every year; the damage to fish populations is far greater. More worrying still, the plastic that constitutes the majority of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch never, ever goes away. Even as it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, plastic polymers remain intact, resulting eventually in a toxic layer of poisonous contaminants that have already begun accumulating in our own food chain.
Mercury poisoning is no longer the only reason to moderate our intake of large game fish.
What can we do to alleviate the situation? Some people donate to missions such as Project Kaisei, sign a congressional petition, or volunteer for a little time at sea themselves to help the cleanup. There's also a little something called the Plastic Diet, and it’s about what you’d imagine: a drastic reduction in the amount of plastic we use on a daily basis.
Soda bottles, shopping bags, disposable razors, mechanical pencils, almost everything sold in a convenience store. If it can’t be avoided – as with a majority of kids’ toys, computer hardware and medical products – advocates of the plastic diet say it’s often possible to ensure responsible disposal. Though efforts to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch have so far proven costly, difficult and even environmentally unsound, an ounce of prevention may truly be the best approach.
Johan Wolfgang von Goethe years ago said, "It's simply not enough to undestand, but to act." So with knowing comes caring, and with caring there is hope that we will find an enduring place for ourselves within the natural systems that sustain us, that keep us alive. As never again, perhaps, we have a chance to get it right.
--Sylvia Earle, August 1, 2007-- By Andrew Harrison