In classic cartoons, the image of a fisherman retrieving a moss-covered boot from a lake, only to turn up his nose with a grimace, made for a cheap laugh. Nowadays, it seems as though the joke may be on us, as new research has shown that plastic pollution in the world’s oceans may outnumber fish by 2050.
The report comes from the World Economic Forum and Leicester University, but is only one of many studies that show a startling increase in petroleum-product pollution on both land and sea. As the study notes, in the past 50 years, plastic production has grown 20 times, with only 14 percent being recycled.
Clare Steele is an associate professor of environmental science and resource management at California State University, Channel Islands, in Camarillo. Steele conducted research, along with seniors Dorothy Horn and Michaela Miller, that shows that plastic pollution, in particular so-called microplastics, has been found within the food chain through sand crabs, which in turn are eaten by shorebirds, who themselves are eaten by fish that could be consumed by humans.
“This is a considerable global problem that we’re really just getting a handle on,” said Steele. “We’ve known about plastic pollution on a large scale for quite some time, but people are really starting to focus on the microplastics.”
Steele and her undergraduate students began researching the topic of microplastic pollution by collecting sand samples from around the world, and in particular from Northern California and all the way to the Mexico coast.
“We’re getting samples of sand from Grand Cayman in the Caribbean, from South Africa and from Hawaii, and we’re finding this microplastic pollution in every place that we look,” said Steele.
Microplastic are, simply put, the remnants of the plastic bottles, bags, fishing lines, etc., that have broken down into smaller and smaller pieces rather than biodegrading into the environment, thereby creating pieces of plastic from half a millimeter in size to microscopic, unable to be seen by the human eye.
Other sources for the microplastics found in both fresh water and the ocean include the discharge from washing machines, which passes through wastewater treatment facilities that are unequipped to stop the microscopic pollutants and is eventually released into rivers and other waterways.
Dorothy Horn is a CSUCI senior studying environmental science and resource management and is one of Steele’s students. Since September 2015, Horn has dissected 125 sand crabs found on beaches from Alaska to San Diego and has discovered, thus far, that roughly 35 percent of them have “ambient fibers” within them.
Aside from being a danger to the animals that ingest them, Horn says these pollutants have a hidden danger to humans as well.
“In other species, invertebrates, mammals, they’ve shown to cause endocrine disruption, as in changes in hormone production,” said Horn, adding that increased hormones can disrupt reproduction. “If a little fish eats a little crab and so on up the food chain and then we eat the fish, well, there’s something called bio-accumulation of toxins that could have an effect on us.”
Toxins, says Steele, cling to plastics in the ocean like Velcro, creating a concentrated area of chemicals that leech out of the plastic.
Fighting debris in the ocean, however, seems to be a never-ending battle.
In April 2015, volunteers from Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and several seafaring businesses in the Ventura Harbor collected 1,300 pounds of debris off of Santa Cruz Island, debris made up of fishing gear, food wrappers and the like.
Penny Owens is the education and community outreach director at Channelkeeper. Owens took part in last year’s cleanup and says that plans are being finalized for this year’s event, too, which is expected to haul in over 1,000 pounds of trash. She leads regular excursions with school children to collect sand crabs, adding that teaching kids about the origins of pollution is important.
“I have them each pick up five pieces of debris and ask, “Where is this coming from?” says Owens. “It’s coming from us; I emphasize that with students.”
Owens says that most studies show that up to 80 percent of ocean pollutants have their origins on land. A plastic bag ban, for instance, could have a big effect on ocean pollution, she says.
“It may seem like a small inconvenience at first, but once you get in the habit of it you realize it’s not that big of a deal.” Owens says that since Santa Barbara passed its plastic bag ban in 2013, it has eliminated 95 percent of the city’s plastic bags.
“Do I think [plastic bag bans] are the answer to our environmental problems? No, but it’s one small step we can take,” said Owens.
A measure to ban plastic bags will be on the California ballot this year, having been delayed since 2014.
“Plastics are something we all use,” said Steele. “And it is a huge issue, not just in Southern California.” Steele adds that making just one change, such as using a reusable shopping bag, could — and has — made a big difference, noting that Carpinteria has seen an almost 80 percent decrease in pollution from single-use plastic bags since a citywide ban went into effect in 2012.
Horn says that she hopes her and her partner Miller’s research can be used by local agencies and regional water districts to better understand where pollutants originate. Horn was granted a $5,000 “Water Resources Experiential Learning for USDA Careers” Internship by the USDA, which she’ll use to test local waterways and estuaries for pollution. Graduate school is on the horizon for Horn, where she’ll study to attain a Ph.D. and to continue her research.
“I want to try to better understand where these plastics and particles are and where they’re coming from. That takes more money and more research tools,” says Horn. “You can talk about how much pollution there is and be doomsayers, or you can direct your research into trying to help the companies that are using them or people who are using the product to change their behavior.”
Steele will present her research as part of CSU, Channel Islands, Library Lecture Series in May. The Ventura County Surfrider Foundation will conduct a beach cleanup at Ormond Beach on Saturday, Feb. 27. For more information, visit www.ventura.surfrider.org.