Oceans cover huge sections of our planet. These gigantic bodies of water connect us to one another, serving as important resources for countries around the world.
We rely on oceans for food, transportation, recreation and so much more.
The problem is that the oceans rely on us as well.
Right now, we are letting the oceans down.
It is only a matter of time before the oceans cannot help but let us down in response.
This is because of ocean pollution.
We all know that ocean pollution exists, but just how big is the problem?
What happens if ocean pollution is not stopped?
A Brief History of Ocean Pollution
When you look at pollution, you have to first understand what it is. Pollution is the release of harmful elements into the environment.
This is different than simple waste. Waste is simply something that is thrown out.
The key difference is that not all waste is detrimental to the environment.
By contrast, all pollution is harmful.
Historically, pollution is a relatively new concept. It can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution.
In the Industrial Revolution, consumer products were made in mass. This meant that the average person could purchase cheap goods. This affordability made goods accessible.
It also made them expendable.
For the first time in history, products were abundant. Consumers had little need to hold onto outdated or broken products. Instead, they simply bought new ones.
The old ones were thrown away.
Before this time, consumer goods were reused and recycled within the home. Clothing was repaired or repurposed. Bits of glass and scraps of metal were given new life out of necessity.
As industrialization continued, society changed its ways. Quickly, consumer society was born. People looked to new and better products. Trash collection was started to handle discarded goods.
Not coincidentally, this is also when pollution became a real problem.
It was not merely consumer goods that became a problem worldwide. The Industrial Revolution also sparked other types of pollution.
Factories poured their byproducts directly into waterways. They were purposefully dumped into the ocean to get them as far away from humans as possible.
This was legal until the 1970s.
The oceans were also a dumping ground for raw sewage.
Chemical waste, industrial waste and radioactive waste were all funneled into ocean waterways because of industrialization.
We spent centuries polluting our oceans.
Now, we are living with the reality that our history of ocean pollution may indeed catch up with us someday soon.
The Harmful Effects of Ocean Pollution
We can already see the damaging impact of ocean pollution.
The research over the last several decades has been as illuminating as it has been terrifying.
In fact, the implications are so dramatic that it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Take ocean life, for example. Fish can be caught up in ocean trash, and other ocean life will consume debris.
The problem even extends to the smallest organisms in the ocean, which have been found with micro plastics in their systems.
These micro plastics form because plastic does not degrade. Instead, it breaks down into smaller pieces.
Small organisms feed on the plastic, and larger organisms feed on the smaller ones.
The micro plastic works its way up the food chain until it is found in everything from plankton to whales.
By consequence, it also ends up in our stomachs. The ocean fish supply is the main source of protein for one billion people globally.
The effects do not stop there. Up to 90 percent of the apex predators in the ocean have gone extinct.
Recent reports show that 300 sea turtles were killed by discarded fishing gear in Mexico in a single incident alone.
A million seabirds are killed by ocean pollution each year. 100,000 marine mammals die annually.
The ongoing examples are too numerous to delineate here. It is sufficient to say that entire ocean ecosystems are on the verge of total collapse.
Much of this problem stems from plastic. It is reported that 220 million tons of plastic are produced each year.
So far, more than 150 million tons have accumulated in our oceans. In fact, in 2006, one square mile of the ocean contained 46,000 bits of plastic.
The problem is only getting worse. This means that the future is only becoming bleaker.
What Will Happen If Ocean Pollution Continues?
If ocean pollution is not curbed now, the effects are likely to be more perilous than most people realize. The impact will encompass a variety of categories:
As discussed previously, ocean pollution has already led to habitat deterioration and animal extinction.
If things do not change, some predictions suggest that all coral reefs will die out within the century.
This ecological and environmental impact will have further drastic consequences. Humans rely heavily on the oceans.
Therefore, the economic ramifications will not be far behind.
As ocean resources become scarce, the seafood industry will flounder.
Some models show that shellfish populations alone could plunge so much that it will lead to losses of $480 million by the end of the century.
This will mean less money and fewer jobs. It will also mean less food for consumers.
Currently, there are 200 million jobs worldwide related to fishing. These jobs will largely vanish.
It is not just the seafood industry. The tourism industry is also likely to be sacrificed with unchecked ocean pollution.
Coral reefs are popular with tourists who put money into local economies through snorkeling and scuba diving.
Beach communities are protected by reefs, which limit erosion and rising water levels. As these ecological features die off, coastal areas will be swamped and valuable land will be lost.
The effects will be wider reaching still. The ocean thrives with carbon. When these ecosystems are lost or diminished, more carbon is released into the air.
This only accelerates humanity’s problem with climate change and global warming.
As these problems worsen, the geopolitical response will grow more tense. Ocean resources will likely become a point of contention, leading to international haggling and conflict.
With scarce seafood supplies, tensions will flare, and humanity will be forced to reckon with its limited capacity.
It is a startling picture, and it is more possible than we like to admit. Some marine experts warn that humanity will reach the point of no return in terms of ocean pollution by 2050.
Therefore, the situation is dire, but not all is lost. With education, policy and action, we still have time to stop the decline of our oceans.
What Are the Major Types of Ocean Pollution?
The neglect of oceans is a longstanding problem. It is also a dynamic one.
The truth is that ocean pollution is hard to grasp because it is so multifaceted.
There are numerous sources of this pollution, and we must fully understand each source in order to grasp the impact and come up with possible solutions.
Trash is a huge problem for our oceans.
While trash can no longer legally be dumped in the ocean, much of it still ends up there.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that most trash is not biodegradable.
Old food and natural fabrics will eventually break down safely.
Plastics, however, endure. One plastic bottle will still be in the ocean after decades or more.
In fact, there are known huge patches of trash that are huge areas of accumulated debris in the world’s oceans.
One of them is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and it is now twice the size of Texas.
Drilling & Oil Pollution
Drilling pollution makes headlines when big spills happen. In 1989, the Exxon tanker Valdez spilled oil in Prince William Sound.
In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon platform spilled millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico.
There is still pollution from both of these spills, decades later.
While these spills were widely publicized, smaller spills happen more often than people realize. Each year, thousands of gallons of oil spill into American waters.
Disconcertingly, we have limited ability to clean up oil spills. Our best efforts only remove a small portion of the oil.
Worse, there is evidence that the chemicals used to clean up the oil may have side effects of their own.
Not all pollution is visible. In fact, one of the most pressing types of pollution of our oceans comes from noise.
Just think about how sound works underwater.
Sound travels much farther and much faster in the ocean, and many animals who thrive underwater rely heavily on sound for their communication and movement.
Whales, dolphins, fish and more all use sound. It is important for finding food, mating and getting around.
Unfortunately, humans are making their own noises in the ocean, and these noises are throwing the natural cadence of the underwater world out of harmony.
Commercial tankers, oil tankers and container ships trawl across the world’s oceans in large numbers. Navies conduct sonar tests and use submarines.
The racket from these activities travels for miles underwater, and it is deafening for ocean life. Ocean communities are either forced to move or die out entirely.
Usually, when we think of fossil fuels, we think of air pollution. However, there is ample evidence that they affect our waterways as well.
It is estimated that the oceans absorb a quarter of our carbon emissions. As a result, the water becomes more acidic.
Acidification is occurring at unprecedented rates. If left unchecked, our oceans will be 150 percent more acidic by the end of the century.
As the oceans grow more acidic, marine ecosystems are put in jeopardy. Many ocean creatures depend on carbon in the water to survive.
The acidity of the water diminishes these carbon sources, which makes it harder for these creatures to survive.
When animals suffer, humanity suffers as well. By most estimates, the oyster industry alone has lost $110 million. More than 3,200 jobs have been lost already.
Chemicals end up in the oceans in a variety of ways.
In the past, chemicals were dumped directly into the ocean as industrial waste.
However, the London Convention was ratified in 1972 to stop this practice and regulate the disposal of hazardous materials in the ocean.
This measure has helped, but it has not eliminated the problem of chemical pollution in the ocean.
Many chemicals end up in waterways through runoff. In other words, pollutants are on the ground and wash out to sea.
These chemical pollutants take many forms. They include the following:
The effect of these chemicals is quite potent. Chemicals often cause algae to grow out of control, which diminishes oxygen levels in the water.
Dead zones develop, and marine life dies.
When these chemicals are in the water, they are in the food supply and our drinking water.
Some of these damaging chemicals make it so far up the food chain that they have been found in bald eagles.
The Biggest Culprits of Ocean Pollution
The broad types of ocean pollution are important in assessing the impact. However, it is also essential to know specific culprits.
Once you know the primary sources of this pollution, it is possible to curb it better.
Many recent reports target one key source of ocean pollution. This source is fishing gear.
More than 640,000 tons of fishing gear are dumped into ocean waters every year.
This includes discarded nets, lines and traps from the vast array of commercial vessels around the world.
This has been referred to as ghost gear. It is particularly problematic because fishing gear is designed to catch and ensnare wildlife.
When it is not used properly, such ghost gear wreaks havoc on marine creatures and habitats.
Left unchecked, ghost gear can quickly spread throughout the ocean. Even today, it is drifting in all the world’s oceans.
It can be found on Arctic coastlines as easily as it can be found on tropical coral reefs. It is even present in the depths where the seafloor is miles below the surface.
One estimate suggests that as much as 70 percent of large plastics in the ocean can be traced to ghost gear.
This is especially concerning since ghost gear is not nearly as regulated as other types of plastic waste.
While ghost gear composes some of the plastic waste in the ocean, it is not the only source.
Plastic waste is incredibly dangerous in our oceans. It is also painfully omnipresent.
This plastic waste comes in many forms. Some of it can be traced back to industrial needs.
Small plastic pellets known as nurdles are shipped worldwide for manufacturing. These pellets often end up in the water by accident or on purpose.
These plastics are designed to be washed down the drain as a matter of consumer convenience. Unfortunately, that means they end up in the world’s waters.
Notable offenders include the following:
In total, the best studies have documented that 8 million metric tons of plastic wash away from land sources into the ocean annually.
However, the real amount is not documented. It likely exceeds that number.
In fact, there could be 12.7 million metric tons of land plastic waste washed into the oceans each year.
These major sources are just the start. The fact is that our oceans have become a dumping ground for most of humanity’s waste.
This happens intentionally and unintentionally in a myriad of ways.
Consider nonpoint source pollution. This includes many small, everyday sources like your home’s septic tank or your car.
It also includes larger sources like farms and ranches.
Look more closely at nonpoint source pollution from your car or truck. Your car drops small amounts of oil every time you drive.
It ends up on roadways or parking lots. When it rains, it is washed out to local waterways. Over time, it ends up in the ocean.
Air pollution is another unlikely source of ocean pollution. Some pollutants in the air can start to settle on the water, which leads to contamination.
It is painfully clear that ocean pollution is vast and exceedingly hard to track. This makes the task of controlling it that much harder and that much more important.
Hope for Change with Ocean Pollution
If ocean pollution continues on its current course, then the outcome will inevitably be bleak.
It will diminish ocean habitats, reduce ocean biodiversity, limit ocean economic revenue and impact human health and safety.
There is still time to act. If we make the right choices now, we can still prevent oceanic disaster from occurring in the future.
Ongoing Political Efforts
One of the first major political efforts made to curb ocean waste was passed in 1972 with the London Convention.
This international agreement was the first of its kind to target dumping in marine environments.
It was so successful that the agreement was updated and renewed in 1996 with the London Protocol.
These agreements outline waste materials that can and cannot be dumped.
In the United States, more laws and regulations are in place. This includes the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which oversees the sustainability of America’s fisheries.
There are other acts that target marine and coastal environments. Some are:
- The Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships
- Marine Debris Research, Prevention, and Reduction Act
- Shore Protection Act
- Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act
- The BEACH Act of 2000
Other countries have enacted their own measures.
This is important because ocean pollution is a worldwide problem. It will require worldwide corroboration to successfully curb it.
What You Can Do to Reduce Ocean Pollution
Outside of the political realm, there are things that each person can do to stem the tide. It can start with your use of plastics.
Switching from disposable shopping bags to reusable ones is a good place to begin. People should also avoid single-use packaging.
These packages create more waste without providing more product.
Other reusable items are encouraged. Reusable water bottles are better than disposable ones.
Reducing the use of disposable straws and switching to eco-friendly straws is another strong choice.
Buying sustainable sunglasses which are made from recycled ocean plastic instead of virgin plastic is a great option as well.
Another thing you can easily do is to switch to reef-friendly sunscreen, which is better for you and our oceans.
If you want to do more, then there are plenty of opportunities.
There are many organizations dedicated to cleaning up the world’s oceans. Look through this list to see if any interest you:
- The Environmental Defense Fund
- The Nature Conservancy
- Ocean Conservancy
- Lonely Whale Foundation
Also, make sure to check out our article on 15 creative ideas to tackle our garbage problem.
There may be other local efforts in areas where you live or visit.
Contact any one of these organizations to learn more about what you can do to make a difference today.
Ocean pollution is a problem we cannot afford to ignore any longer.
If we do not change our ways, then ocean pollution will reach a breaking point in the near future. The effects will impact more than the oceans themselves.
The impact will quickly change the way we live, eat and earn money.
Therefore, it is time to act.
The battle is daunting, but we have the ability to change course. Smart choices now can build a better future for us all.