Oceans—Precious Resource or Global Sewer?
Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin—his control
Stops with the shore.
From Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, by Lord Byron.
THERE was a time when those words were more than just poetic; they were true. But no more. Today the poet’s words, so expressive of the ocean’s vastness and its seeming invulnerability to puny human efforts to mar it, ring as false and hollow as the idea that man would never fly. Man’s control no longer stops with the shore. He has left his mark on the sea, and an ugly mark it is.
Have you ever been to the beach? If you have, no doubt you have fond memories of the experience: the sparkle of the sunlight on the water; the lulling, rhythmic breaking of the waves on the shore; a refreshing swim; playing in the waves. Just thinking about it makes you look forward to the next time, doesn’t it? But there may be no next time. And that may be the least of our worries; the ocean does more than please our senses.
For instance, draw a deep breath. According to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, you owe much of that breath to the oceans. How so? It says that the waters of this planet, specifically the algae in them, supply some 90 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Others estimate that by themselves the microscopic phytoplankton of the oceans provide up to a third of the planet’s oxygen. The oceans also moderate the globe’s temperature, support an incredibly rich variety of life, and play a crucial role in global climate and rain cycles. In short, the oceans are a key to life on this planet.
A Global Sewer
But to man they are more than that. They are also a garbage dump. Sewage, chemical wastes from factories, and pesticide-laden runoff from farmland all make their way to the sea by barge, river, and pipeline. Man has long treated the oceans as a giant sewer. But now the sewer has begun to back up on him. Popular resort beaches around the world have had to shut down in recent years as garbage washed ashore in disgusting array.
Drug paraphernalia and medical debris, such as stained bandages, hypodermic needles, and vials of blood—some contaminated with the AIDS virus—made headlines as they emerged on east-coast beaches in the United States. Balls of raw sewage, dead laboratory rats, a human stomach lining, and even more unsavory items all made their gruesome appearance. Some became quite commonplace.
The crisis has struck beaches on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea of northern Europe, the Adriatic and Mediterranean seas of southern Europe, and even along the Soviet shores of the Black Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Beaches have been closed down, as swimmers at such places risked a wide array of illnesses. World-famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau wrote recently that bathers at some Mediterranean beaches were braving 30 diseases, ranging from boils to gangrene. He forecast a time when no one would dare to dip a toe in the water.
But mankind’s refuse does more than close beaches and inconvenience swimmers. Its damage has spread to deeper waters.
One hundred and twenty-three miles [198 km] off the coast of New York, U.S.A., New York began to dump its sludge several years ago. Recently, from undersea canyons some 80 miles [130 km] away, fishermen started bringing up fish with lesions and rotting fins and crabs and lobsters with “burn-spot disease”—holes in their shells that look as if they were made by burning blowtorches. Government officials deny any connection between the dump site and the sick fish, but the fishermen don’t see it that way. One dockmaster told Time magazine that New Yorkers are “going to get their garbage right back in the fish they’re eating.”
Experts feel that ocean pollution is fast becoming a global epidemic; nor is it limited to industrial nations. Less developed countries are also under siege, for two reasons. First, the world’s oceans are really one big ocean with currents that ignore borders. Second, industrial nations have taken advantage of poorer ones as dump sites for their wastes. In just the past two years, the United States and Europe shipped some three million tons of dangerous waste to Eastern European and African countries. In addition, some foreign contractors build factories in Asia and Africa without incorporating the systems needed to dispose of waste.
The Plastic Plague
With plastic, man is faced with another brainchild run amok. At times it seems that technology cannot exist without it. Plastic may seem indispensable; it is also virtually undisposable. When man is through with it, he is hard put to get rid of it. The plastic that holds a six-pack of beer cans together might last anywhere from 450 to 1,000 years.
One popular way to get rid of the stuff, as you might have guessed, is to throw it into the ocean. In fact, a recent report estimated that every year about 26,000 tons of packaging and 150,000 tons of fishing gear are lost or thrown in the ocean. According to U.S.News & World Report, “merchant and naval vessels jettison 690,000 plastic containers every day.” One expert calculated that even in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there are about 130,000 fragments of plastic per square mile [50,000 per sq/km].
The oceans cannot absorb this plague of plastic. It usually floats along intact until the ocean vomits it up onto some beach, where it continues to blight the earth’s beauty. But it also does something much more serious in the process.
Too High a Price
The problem with plastics, as with other pollutants, is their cost in terms of life. Giant sea turtles mistake floating garbage bags for translucent, undulating jellyfish—a favorite meal. The turtles either choke on the bags or swallow them whole. Either way, the plastic kills them.
All kinds of marine life, from whales to dolphins and seals, get tangled up in abandoned fishing lines and nets. Seals playfully thrust their snouts through discarded plastic rings, and then, unable to get them off again or even to open their mouths, they slowly starve to death. Seabirds get caught up in fishing lines and frantically thrash themselves to death trying to get loose again, and these are not isolated cases. Garbage chokes about one million seabirds and a hundred thousand marine mammals every year.
Chemical pollution has also added its share to the death toll. Last summer, dead seals began to wash up onto the shores of the North Sea. Within months, some 12,000 of the North Sea’s 18,000 harbor seals were wiped out. What killed them? A virus. But there is more to it than that. The billions of gallons of waste regularly poured into the North Sea and the Baltic played a part too, weakening the immune system of the seals and helping the disease to spread.
While pollution is especially concentrated in the Baltic and North seas, an animal would be hard put to find an unpolluted stretch of ocean these days. In the far reaches of the Arctic and the Antarctic, penguins, narwhals, polar bears, fish, and seals all carry traces of man’s chemicals and pesticides in their body tissues. Beluga whale carcasses in Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence are considered hazardous waste, so loaded are they with toxins. On the Atlantic coast of the United States, some 40 percent of the area’s dolphins died in just over a year, washing ashore with blisters, lesions, and patches of skin falling off.
Kicking a Delicate Mechanism
Ocean pollution has another penalty as well. It delivers a deadly kick to complex ecosystems, with frightening results. For instance, the oceans are designed with defenses against befoulment. Estuaries and marshlands at the mouths of rivers are effective filters, removing harmful substances from the water before it flows into the sea. The ocean itself has a tremendous capacity for self-renewal and cleaning out impurities. But man is paving over marshlands, overtaxing estuaries, and at the same time dumping waste into the oceans faster than they can absorb it.
As sewage and runoff flow unchecked into the seas, they overnourish algae, which then blossom into sprawling red and brown tides that deplete the oxygen in the water and kill marine life for miles around. Such tides are increasing the world over.
Man has even polluted in ways previously unheard of. For instance, there is thermal pollution. An inflow of warm wastes that even slightly raises local water temperatures may encourage the growth of organisms that upset the ecosystem.
There is also noise pollution. According to The New York Times, man has shattered the quiet of the undersea world with his blasting for seismic studies, his drilling for oil, and his massive ships. The noise damages the sensitive hearing organs of fish, whales, and seals—perhaps even upsetting their ability to communicate with one another. The book Cosmos by Carl Sagan claims that whales may once have been able to hear one another’s low-frequency sounds across thousands of miles of ocean, as far as the distance between Alaska and the Antarctic. Sagan estimates that the advent of human noise interference has reduced that distance to a few hundred miles. “We have cut the whales off from themselves,” he muses.
The oceans also illustrate how intertwined the pollution crises have become. For example, because of the damage man has done to the ozone layer of the earth’s atmosphere, more ultraviolet light reaches the seas and kills plankton floating near the surface. Since plankton absorbs carbon dioxide, destroying it contributes to the global warming trend known as the greenhouse effect. Even acid rain comes into the picture as it dumps man’s nitrogen in the waters of the world, perhaps stimulating deadly algae blooms. What a tangled, dangerous web man has woven!
But is the picture completely hopeless? What will happen to our oceans? Are they doomed to degenerate into lifeless cesspools of chemicals and garbage?
[Box on page 5]
A GLOBAL PLAGUE
◼ In 1987, 33 percent of U.S. shellfish beds had to close down because of pollution.
◼ Sylt, a German resort island in the North Sea, long famous for clean beaches, was besieged last summer by an algae bloom and pollution. A three-foot-thick [0.9 m] layer of stinking foam coated the beaches.
◼ Naturalists looked forward to visiting Laysan, a remote and uninhabited Pacific island a thousand miles [1,600 km] from Hawaii. They found the beaches covered with plastic debris and garbage.
◼ Worldwide, man dumps some six million tons of oil into the oceans every year—most of it on purpose.
◼ According to the environmental group Greenpeace, the Irish Sea contains more radioactive wastes than all the oceans combined. The contamination may have contributed to a 50-percent rise in leukemia rates along the shore.
◼ Beaches of every country along the Indian Ocean are plagued by tar balls from oil discharged by tankers.
◼ Lost or discarded drift nets from the fishing industry entangle and kill some 30,000 northern fur seals every year. Asian vessels alone lose an estimated ten miles [16 km] of net every night.
◼ While the Italian government said that 86 percent of its beaches were clean, environmentalists put the number at 34 percent. Some 70 percent of the cities along the coast of the Mediterranean dump raw sewage directly into the sea.
◼ The 20,000 islands of Southeast Asia have suffered pollution damage from offshore tin mining, blasting, and waste disposal from land and from ships. The price: endangered species, damaged coral reefs, and beaches blighted with grease and tar balls.
◼ Brazil’s Veja magazine carried an article called “A Scream for Help,” about the pollution of Brazil’s shoreline and coastal waters. The culprit: improper sewage disposal and industrialization without necessary precautions.
[Picture on page 7]
Oil spills take thousands of lives
H. Armstrong Roberts