Environmentalist Shares Good and Bad News from Expedition

An unusual expedition recently brought environmental wellness experts and artists together to witness and respond to beach trash on the shores of southern Alaska. One such attendee was marine biologist Carl Safina, the founding president of the Blue Ocean Institute and a research professor at Stony Brook University, who came home from the GYRE expedition with good and bad news for the planet’s wellbeing.


Safina details, ‘We travelled from Seward in southern Alaska and headed southwest for about 300 miles, with stops, to the shores at Gore Point on the Kenai Peninsula, Wonder Bay on Afognak Island, Blue Fox Bay on Shuyak Island, and Hallo Bay at Katmai National Park. We met concerned citizens — paid and volunteer — who collect and catalogue trash on some of the more accessible beaches (a very relative term in a roadless region where every beach requires a boat or an airlift). At Katmai’s Hallo Bay, rangers had worked for a week to pile and bag stuff that doesn’t belong on a beach or in a national park; we hauled four tonnes of trash from a four-mile beach. That’s a lot, and on some of the coast there certainly is a lot of trash…Yes, we found soft-drink and plastic bottles (how could we not?). But a lot of it was fishing net floats, fishing nets — old driftnets and new trawl nets — buoys, ship bumpers, and dock lines. There were also cargo nets and products that had spilled from shipping containers washed from freighters in storms.’


With the vast amount of litter on the seemingly deserted beaches, Safina found himself asking the question: If rubbish washes up on a beach so remote that no one is there to see it, does it make a mess? ‘This is not a deserted place,’ Safina asserts. ‘This is the last best megalopolis of life for hundreds of species of bird, fishes, and mammals long since driven from their strongholds farther south by human crowding and destruction of their living places…How we treat our lands and other living inhabitants reflects how we treat other peoples and how we treat one another. That’s why trash, even on a “remote” beach, insults our dignity and sullies our humanity…Before it gets ashore, [plastic] causes harm and suffering to seals, turtles, fishes, and seabirds who die from tangling in it and from the consequences of eating it and who feed it to their young. I’ve seen all of these creatures in trouble with trash.’


Clearly, then, plastic is a problem for animal wellness, as well as human health. Safina explains that plastic ‘greatly resists getting metabolised by bacteria or chemically degraded. It doesn’t go away. It just gets smaller. Animals eat it, and even at the scale of molecules, it’s still plastic. Plastic polymers have been found circulating in the blood of mussels. Some plastics are non-toxic; some have toxic additives like lead and metals. We found both of those additives in some (though not all) of the samples we tested.’ So with what did Safina come away from the expedition? A call to arms.


‘It’s time for environmentalists to stop simply categorising the human-made debris,’ Safina argues. ‘We need to start understanding how and where it gets into the ocean. The US government has observers on fishing boats to monitor catches; why isn’t there a question on the form asking captains how many nets they’ve lost in the last year? Why not a survey asking if they’ve ever dumped an old net because on-land disposal is too expensive? Why no adequate sampling and surveying of rivers for plastic outflow rates, no adequate dialogue with shipping companies to understand rates of container loss? I’d rather not land on another beach where a person with a clipboard is counting how many bottles have Chinese lettering, unless that person has a colleague studying whether those bottles come from rivers or fishing boats, and what can be done about it.’

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