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Oceans Deeply Talks: Drowning in Plastic

Oceans Deeply talks with experts about the plastic pollution that’s threatening the ocean: What we know, what we don’t know and, crucially, what we can do about it.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 1 minutes
Monk seal resting marine debris 1000 e1431438655783
An endangered monk seal resting on a tangled web of fishing gear and marine debris.NOAA

In our latest Oceans Deeply Talks, community editor Ian Evans is joined by journalist Erica Cirino, a frequent contributor to Oceans Deeply, and Keith Cialino, the northeast regional coordinator for the marine debris program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to discuss marine plastic pollution.

While aboard a marine research vessel recently, Cirino spotted plastic debris 2,000 miles (3,200km) from shore. However, much of the plastic that flows into the ocean disappears from sight as it breaks down into tiny bits known as microplastics and even smaller pieces, not visible to the eye, called nanoplastics. Cirino witnessed scientists pulling up shards of plastic from 650ft (200m) below the surface of the sea. This, she says, means we may have “grossly underestimated” the amount of plastic in the ocean.

Cialino has seen similar plastic pollution off the east coast of the United States. Derelict fishing gear is particularly problematic because marine animals often die from eating it or becoming entangled in fishing lines and nets.

How microplastics and nanoplastics affect animal and human health is not well understood. These tiny pieces of plastics can be vehicles for viruses, bacteria and toxins. The particles are eaten by fish, which can end up on dinner plates. A recent United Nations report stated that 121 commercial seafood species have been found to ingest plastics.

“It is well known, though, that those chemicals cause serious health problems in animals and humans,” says Cirino. “So, the fact that these plastics are absorbing these chemicals is a huge concern for scientists.”

One solution is to prevent plastics from getting into the ocean. Cialino notes that cleaning up plastic pollution can boost local economies. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, for instance, pays fishers to collect abandoned fishing nets that are then incinerated to produce energy or recycled into other products.

To learn more, you can listen to our full, 30-minute conversation.

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