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A Blue View: Our Ocean Junk

by John Racanelli, Chief Executive Officer

Published June 05, 2013

A Blue View is a weekly perspective on the life aquatic, hosted by National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli.

From the smallest plants and animals invisible to the human eye to entire ecosystems, every living thing depends on and is intricately linked by water.

Tune in to 88.1 WYPR every Tuesday at 5:45 p.m. as John brings to the surface important issues and fascinating discoveries making waves in the world today.

June 5, 2013: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Listen to John discuss how marine debris is seriously affecting the health of our oceans.

In 1900, plastic debris did not exist in the ocean. Today, hundreds of millions of metric tons affect our seas. The oceans need our help now.

Imagine a stroll along the beach. You might picture a beautiful, uncluttered expanse of blue. The reality is that the ocean is a complex system filled with plants, animals, minerals, elements, and, yes, trash.

This trash often ends up in a gyre.  Gyres are large areas of calm water that are encircled by ocean currents formed by the earth's wind patterns and rotation of the planet. Debris that drifts into these gyres stays there for years - pushed gently in a slow spiral toward the center. Every ocean in the world has a gyre, with additional gyres near Antarctica and Alaska.

five gyres

Map courtesy of 5 gyres.

Within these enormous ocean junkyards, you aren't likely to see giant pieces of plastic and other trash floating on the surface. Animal ingestion and entanglement in larger types of marine debris is a major issue. But primarily, these garbage patches are made up of plastic that has broken down over time into smaller, sometimes microscopic, pieces. This plastic is suspended in a layer of the water column that reaches below the surface. Because most of the debris isn't readily visible on the surface, the size of the garbage patch cannot be seen or tracked by satellite or aircraft.

These plastic particles that circulate through oceans act as sponges for contaminants that have washed through our watersheds. These persistent organic pollutants absorb into plastic in high concentrations. Once in the oceans, fish and other marine animals cannot avoid eating this minute particles, so plastic enters the ocean food chain at its most basic level. These fish are then eater by other fish and organisms, delivering this pollution to onto our dinner plate.

So who is responsible for cleaning up these oceanic garbage dumps? Because these gyres are so far from any country's coastline, no nation has been willing to take responsibility. It's up to concerned citizens to make this issue a priority. One group that has stepped up to inform and inspire the public about this issue is 5 Gyres. Through events and other outreach opportunities around the country, including at both National Aquarium venues in 2012, the group aims to conduct research and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution.

Since plastics are not going away, we as a culture need to figure out how to balance our use of these items with awareness and concern for their impact on the environment. This issue may seem insurmountable, but even one person cutting back on their plastic consumption can make a difference starting today.

Did you know? Approximately 29 billion bottles are purchased every year in the United States. Make a pledge to reduce your consumption of plastic bottles today and help us take better care of our oceans! 

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