Increasing vulnerability of the oceanic ecosystem

Noore Alam Siddiqui | Published: May 09, 2018 22:24:15 | Updated: May 10, 2018 20:51:39

Since the beginning of industrial revolution, consumerist attitude in human nature has continued to grow, reaching its peak in the 21st century. Multidimensional physical and sensual demand is growing with every passing day, alongside dissatisfaction. It is typical of human nature that they do not become alert until some danger is imminent.

Industrial and human waste in the form of both solid and liquid including various types of plastic products, packages of various consumer products, machineries, parts and equipment along with chemicals are being dumped into the water bodies. Major rivers of the world are already polluted. The rivers flowing to the sea carry multiple types of wastes. As such, everyday thousands of tonnes of plastic, synthetic and chemical wastes flow into the oceans, harming their ecosystem and bio-diversity. Sea water, foods, fishes and other animals in the sea are under threat as a result.

We are living in an age that some scientists call 'the Age of Plastic'. China is easily the world's largest producer of plastic products. Europe and North America are also major players. Other Asian nations round out a long list of manufacturers. But consumers are the real polluters, and people on every continent participate in the pollution, from the Arctic to Africa.

Plastic is flexible, durable and cheap and because of these characteristics, this matter has become very attractive to mankind while causing a disaster for the ocean. It has only been about 60 years since we started using plastic industrially. The usage and production have been increasing ever since. A recent study found that every year, roughly eight million metric tonnes of plastic are dumped into the oceans. By the year 2050, there will be more plastic bags than fish in the ocean.

Plastic's most lucrative market is packaging, commonly seen in grocery stores. It could be in front of us right now, in the form of a water bottle, a carryout lunch container, or an iced-coffee or tea cup with disposable straw. It is a miracle product that is also in our office chair, phone and computer keyboard. Plastic is pretty much everywhere humans are at any part of the day, anywhere in the world.

More than nine billion tonnes of plastic has been produced since 1950, and the vast majority of it is still around. A new study, that tracked the global manufacture and distribution of plastics since they became widespread after World War II, found that only two billion tonnes of that plastic is still in use. The other seven billion tonnes is stuck on earth as garbage in landfills, recycled trash or pollution in the environment including deep oceans. Plastic was discovered in the mouths of whales and the bellies of dead seabirds that mistook it for food. A small amount is eliminated through incinerators.

A scientific team has reported recently that 79,000 tonnes of plastic debris, in the form of 1.8 trillion pieces, are now occupying an area three times the size of France in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. The amount of plastic found in this area, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is "increasing exponentially," according to the surveyors, who used two planes and 18 boats to assess the ocean pollution. This new survey estimates that the mass of plastic contained there is four to 16 times larger than previously supposed, and it is continuing to accumulate because of ocean currents and careless humans both onshore and offshore. The study was led by the Ocean Cleanup Foundation and researchers at institutions in New Zealand, the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Denmark, who published the findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

It is observed that most of this plastic is probably coming from Pacific countries. But it could be coming from anywhere since plastic now travels across the entirety of the ocean and has even shown up in Arctic waters, where very few humans live. This suggests that the plastic travelled there from elsewhere by riding the ocean currents. Some of the debris probably also came from the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan and washed large amounts of waste back out to sea, the study said.

Scientists have also discovered the presence of chemical pollutants in some of the ocean's deepest trenches, previously thought to be nearly untouched by human influence. In fact, they have found levels of contamination in some marine organisms living there that rival some of the most polluted waterways on the planet.

In a new study, the researchers checked for the presence of these chemicals in two of the world's deepest ocean trenches - the Mariana trench in the Western Pacific, near the Mariana Islands, and the Kermadec trench north of New Zealand. To do so, the researchers deployed special devices called "deep-sea landers", small vessels that are released from ships and drop to the bottom of the ocean before floating back up to the surface.

On the other hand, crude oil and refined fuel spills from tanker ship accidents have damaged vulnerable ecosystems in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, France, the Sundarbans, Ogoniland and many other places. The quantity of oil spilled during accidents has ranged from a few hundred tonnes to several hundred thousand tonnes, but volume is a limited barometre of damage or impact. Smaller spills have already proven to have a greater impact on ecosystems, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill because of the remoteness of the site or the difficulty of an emergency environmental response.

During the offshore drilling operations for oil and gas explorations the leakage of effluent water to the surrounding areas is a major source of pollution. To check the leakage of effluent water, efficient measures must be taken.

It is pertinent to determine how these contaminants may move through the food chain and whether they can cause any measurable damage to the ecosystems they enter. But for now, the findings from these studies serve as a loud reminder that human activities have consequences all over the planet.

A partial solution can be the recycling of plastic goods. But the volume of recycling is not as satisfactory as it should be. A recent study shows that the highest recycling rates in 2014 were in Europe (30 per cent) and China (25 per cent), whereas in the United States, plastic recycling has remained steady at only nine per cent.

Recycling only delays plastic's inevitable trip to a trash bin. Burning is the only way to assure that plastic is eliminated, and Europe and China by far lead the United States in that category as well, up to 40 per cent compared with 16 per cent. But burning plastic is risky because if the emissions are not carefully filtered, harmful chemicals become air pollutants. Like other countries, the United States has been slow to enforce regulations on industry emissions.

In order to keep the rivers and oceans inhabitable for sea creatures as well as to keep the planet free from contamination, we must curb environmental pollution, mostly plastic and chemicals, being dumped into the sea. Otherwise, no effort or power can save this planet.

Noore Alam Siddiqui is a freelance column writer


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