The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tony Haymet

After a frustrating month of searching for visible clues, many of us have been buoyed by the detection of an audio “ping” from what could be the black box of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370. In addition to the challenges nature placed in front of searchers on the surface combing thousands of square kilometres of ocean, humans have made the task even harder for a deplorable reason: we have deposited so much rubbish in the sea that we sent searchers on false leads, compelling them to devote precious resources to travel to the site of what turns out to be someone’s carelessly discarded refuse, adding even further to the unimaginable grief of the families of passengers and crew.

It is a sad reminder of the obvious, but forgotten, problem we have created by treating the ocean simultaneously as a breadbasket and rubbish tip. Did we all fall into the same trap as Thomas Huxley when it comes to the ocean’s vastness? Huxley got most things right, but in his inaugural address to the 1883 Fisheries Exhibition in London, the biologist affirmed “with confidence that, in relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries […] are inexhaustible”. Sadly, in only 131 years, 6.5 billion of us proved him wrong about fish in the ocean.

What seems truly inexhaustible is our ability to fill the ocean with plastic. In mid 2009, I was lucky enough to piece together funding for a proposal by Miriam Goldstein, a PhD Student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California, San Diego, to send her and a handful of her fellow students from California on a 20-day science expedition to the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” north-east of Hawaii. The peer-reviewed, published measurements from this SEAPLEX expedition defy imagination.

Scripps graduate students Pete Davison and Rebecca Asch found plastic inside 9 percent of the mesopelagic fishes they caught. That’s just the living ones. If the fish ate plastic and died, they were not sampled. Miriam Goldstein and her co-authors Marci Rosenberg and Lanna Cheng found that floating microplastic created a whole new habitat in which certain insects thrive! (Halobates sericeus if you are following along at home…) Further, they estimated that the rubbish patch grew by a factor of 100 over the past 40 years.

The north pacific patch has spawned many myths. But the reality is much worse. Europeans say the patch is as big as France. Americans say it is twice the size of Texas. Communicators at Scripps regularly field questions from the public inquiring if the patch is something one can walk across.

In fact, although the North Pacific Garbage Patch is, like the southern Indian Ocean, covered with large pieces of plastic and tangles of fishing gear visible from space, most of it is virtually invisible to the eye. It is comprised mostly of plastic pieces that have been broken down by wave action to be half the size of a little fingernail, less than 5 millimetres in diameter. Slightly larger pieces are often attractively coloured and a perfect bite size for turtles and birds that don’t always realise what they are eating until the indigestible plastic is in their stomachs. Many animals die because the plastic is blocking the path of actual food.

Sprinkled throughout the patch like vegetables in a thin broth are larger pieces of flotsam that may not break down further – fishing line, large chunks of Styrofoam, pieces of crate – the kinds of things that needlessly distracted the MH370 hunters west of Perth.

It is time to acknowledge the damage that this sort of pollution is doing to the oceans and invest our resources in stopping its growth and enforcement. Optimally we could invest in research that would create new plastics that degrade more completely in sunlight and salt water. We need to strengthen and enforce the laws already in existence to prevent litter from terrestrial sources from reaching the ocean in the first place. We can do much more to hold polluters responsible for cleaning up their mess in the ocean, just as we do on land.

This article was originally published in the The Sydney Morning Herald