“Good divers take only pictures and leave only bubbles,” is a philosophy embossed on signage at many dive spots around the world.
That philosophy holds true for the 18 specially marked Sanctuary Preservation Areas in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Although controlled fishing is permitted in other areas of the 2,900-square nautical mile sanctuary, regulations — designed protect habitat, reduce threats to water quality, and minimize human impact on delicate resources — are very specific about what is permitted to enter or leave or the sea.
Discharging sewage, trash and other materials is prohibited.
In other words: don’t dump your trash in the ocean.
It seems not everyone got the memo.
I live near Harry Harris Park in Tavernier. So, I take the turn at Burton Drive off Highway 1 to get home. Looking at the side of the road and into the mangroves, I see the usual litter — plastic bags and bottles, beer cans, fast food containers and all manner of other waste.
I always know when one guy who lives near me stops at the corner mini-mart because his extra-large drink Styrofoam cup is about 100 yards down the road. Some days he changes up and tosses an empty beer bottle after flicking out a cigarette butt. If it has been a long day, fast food wrappers and containers join the mix.
When I visit Harry Harris Park on a quiet morning to check out a sunrise, I find the shore near the boat ramp covered with lots of litter including empty boat engine oil bottles, floats, rope, assorted trash, plastic containers and even the sea creature killing plastic rings used to hold beverages.
In the technical language of the United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): “deposits on island shores, often in remote and uninhabited areas, provide good indicators of ocean-derived debris such as fishing gear and waste from vessels. They also show that plastics, in particular, are transported over considerable distances by ocean currents. From the extensive literature on marine debris, it is known that plastic materials and fishing gear are widespread in the oceans and can become concentrated in certain areas. Pre-production plastic pellets, and fragments of larger plastic items, are widespread in seawater.”
An organization called Plastic Oceans says, “More than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year.”
Where does it all this trash come from and go?
Well, a lot of it in the Pacific goes as far away as uninhabited Henderson Island, one of the four-island Pitcairn Group, made famous by the descendants of the HMS Bounty’s mutineers.
According to Laura Parker of National Geographic describing a study by Jennifer Lavers, there are 38 million pieces of plastic trash covering this remote island.
Lavers wrote: “on Henderson’s white sandy beaches, you can find articles from Russia, the United States, Europe, South America, Japan, and China. All of it is trash, most of it plastic. It bobbed across global seas until it was swept into the South Pacific gyre, a circular ocean current that functions like a conveyor belt, collecting plastic trash and depositing it onto tiny Henderson’s shore at a rate of about 3,500 pieces a day.”
Most folks have heard of the great Pacific garbage patch described in a 1988 paper published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The description was based on results obtained by several Alaska-based researchers that found high concentrations of marine debris accumulating in regions governed by ocean currents. (http://swfsc.noaa.gov/publications/TM/SWFSC/NOAA-TM-NMFS-SWFSC-154_P247.PDF)
The patch has exceptionally high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents in the North Pacific. Its low density helps prevent detection by satellite, boaters or even divers because it is made up of suspended, often microscopic, particles.
Carey Morishige of the NOAA Marine Debris Program's says the term “garbage patch is a misnomer noting that these areas have a higher concentration of plastic than other parts of the ocean, but much of the debris found in these areas are small bits of plastic (microplastics) that are suspended throughout the water column.
Turns out there are many "garbage patches" including five massive gyres of trash particles swirling around in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The plastic gathering points appear where rotating currents, winds, and other ocean features converge. (http://response.restoration.noaa.gov/about/media/how-big-great-pacific-garbage-patch-science-vs-myth.html)
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says: “Marine debris is often the result of poorly managed waste. The amount of waste from U.S. consumers continues to rise, more than doubling between 1960 and 2013. When consumer goods, often single-use disposables, are littered or improperly managed, this trash can find its way into rivers, streams and other waterways. These ultimately empty into our oceans, where the trash becomes marine debris.” (https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/sources-aquatic-trash)
The EPA adds: “Furthermore, one-third to two-thirds of the debris we catalog on beaches comes from single-use, disposable plastic packaging from food and beverage-related goods and services (things like plastic cups, bottles, straws, utensils, and stirrers). The other 20 percent (one-fifth) of items making up marine debris are attributed to at-sea losses from accidental or deliberate discharges from ocean-going vessels, and from lost or abandoned fishing gear and traps.”
The “top ten” trash items found during beach cleanups are: cigarette butts, food wrappers, plastic beverage containers, plastic bottle caps, straws and stirrers, other plastic bags, grocery bags, glass bottles, beverage cans and plastic cups and plates. (http://www.care2.com/causes/10-most-common-types-of-ocean-trash.html)
The local news and social media often have stories about how turtles, fish and even sharks are injured by trash in the sea. This is bad news for sea creatures — turtles think plastic bags are a favorite food – jellyfish.
"The ocean is basically a toilet bowl for all of our chemical pollutants and waste in general," noted Chelsea Rochman, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, who authored a study on pollutants in the ocean. "Eventually, we start to see those contaminants high up in the food chain, in seafood and wildlife." http://www.nature.com/articles/srep03263
“Plastics — when they end up in the ocean — are a sponge for chemicals already out there," says Rochman. "We found that when the plastic interacts with the juices in the [fish's] stomach, the chemicals come off of plastic and are transferred into the bloodstream or tissue."
So, it goes full circle. We dump plastic into the ocean; the plastic breaks down and picks up contaminants; small fish eat the plastics; bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and then humans eat the bigger fish.
Sort of like ocean Karma.
To see the “2017 EPA-FDA Advice about Eating Fish and Shellfish” go to https://www.epa.gov/fish-tech/2017-epa-fda-advice-about-eating-fish-and-shellfish
After I finished the first draft of this column, I went to my other retirement “day job” as a scuba instructor. The area under the bridge on the way back from the dive into Tavernier Creek Marina was covered in trash. I was embarrassed, to say the least, knowing that the boatload of divers was from other states and saw how we treat our waterways.
Many local schools, churches, civic clubs and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary sponsor beach and shoreline cleanups. Several dive operators in the Keys also sponsor debris removal from natural and artificial reefs.
For ideas to help save the ocean from trash see: http://www.worldoceansday.org/below-the-surface/index.htm
Don Rhodes, in addition to a career in government affairs, has taught scuba for 30 years. He and his wife retired to Tavernier five years ago, where he works as an instructor for Conch Republic Divers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.