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Overfishing and the Problem of Plastic

A couple years ago I read a book by Carl Safina that opened the door to how big an impact human activity is having on the oceans and marine life. Around the same time a major, and majorly depressing, report was released on the state of global fisheries, suggesting most would collapse by 2048 based on current activities and behaviour. Here’s an update on the situation.

Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York lays out the situation. The big news is fairly straightforward. There has been a big movement to have fisheries assessed and certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. This has changed the approach to regulation of fisheries, especially in countries and regions where there has been a lot of certification done. More importantly, as Carl Safina emphasized as being a major problem in the past, when regulators and fishing interests meet to set quotas, there’s now increasing pressure to base them on science, rather than on what voters or the fishing industry wants. For decades quotas have been set much higher than what scientists have said was necessary for sustainability, and thus the major(ly depressing) report on the imminent collapse of fisheries.

The other big development has been a new drive towards protecting large sections of the ocean to function as breeding grounds for marine life, which would spur recovery. Coral reefs are often specifically protected for this reason, preventing bottom trawling nets from harming the reefs and also creating a hub for breeding. This is actually one of the areas where the previous American administration did a good job, getting a series of marine protected areas (MPAs) put in place, which now make up a third of MPAs globally. Roberts argues that quotas need to be put to rest, since they only lead to twice as much dead or injured marine life being thrown overboard as is landed. Rather, 30% of the oceans should be protected to allow for stocks to recover. A great deal of recovery could be accomplished in as little as 20 years.

But in other oceans news, there is the plastic problem. Plastic is a serious environmental and health issue that still isn’t getting enough attention. The damage it causes is possibly most apparent in the oceans, where huge plastic garbage patches exist in areas where currents and winds are favourable for such agglomerations. Sea birds and ocean life eat or are entangled in plastic objects and die at a rate of a million a year for sea birds and 100,000 a year for marine mammals. Then there’s the fact that plastic’s biodegrading involves breaking into smaller and smaller pieces, so that in certain places in the ocean these pieces are more abundant than plankton and on certain beaches they make up a high proportion of the “sand”. It seems likely that people, like birds, fish, whales and wildlife on land as well, are ingesting plastic to a certain extent. Plastic in water bodies also tends to attract other toxic chemicals, so that when it’s ingested, it often has a toxic punch – aside from anything inherent in the chemicals contained in the plastic itself – that can accumulate and be magnified up the food chain.

In case you’re thinking that a lot of the plastic in the ocean comes from refuse from ships or broken ship containers of shoes and toothbrushes, it’s believed that 80% of it actually comes from plastic discarded on land, much of it as pellets before it has even had the chance to be made into useful products. The bottom line for most of us is to cut down on using disposable plastic shopping bags by using reusable ones, and to avoid drinking bottled water. Together these two are the worst of the plastic problem, and the easiest to cut back.

This article gives a fairly good history of the discovery of the problem and the history of plastic. It concludes with a commentary on a project led by David de Rothschild, which aims to raise awareness about the issue by sailing a specially designed, low environmental impact boat made entirely of recycled plastic to the plastic garbage patch and a bunch of other plastic “hot spots” in the Pacific, including certain islands and beaches. Mother Jones also recently did a piece that explains the potential, the usefulness and the problems of plastic.

Rothschild picks up on a major theme in the public mind lately, which is that the environmental problems seem so great to many people that they’ve essentially resigned themselves to just enjoying their own lives while “it lasts”. Like him, I understand the pull in this, but I don’t think it’s an either-or situation. People need to do both. We can’t completely absolve ourselves or our political and corporate leaders of responsibility by just “enjoying the moment”. So much of the modern lifestyle, aside from any effects it’s having on “the environment” and “nature”, has impinged on an individual’s ability to “enjoy the moment” anyhow, that sitting and putting up with it seems pretty defeatist and maybe just simply lazy and uninspired. But, that’s another post. I’ll end by saying that enjoying what you’ve got can also mean enjoying causing and effecting change, and it might be a higher and more lasting level of enjoyment at that.

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