The Ocean

Photo: Trash littering a harbor

Trash litters the waters of a fishing village on Bonny Island in the Niger Delta. This impoverished region of Africa was supposed to be transformed for the better by the discovery in 1956 of large oil reserves. Half a century later, poverty still reigns, exacerbated by pollution, depleted fisheries, and environmental degradation from the oil industry.

Photograph by Ed Kashi

The oceans are so vast and deep that until fairly recently, it was widely assumed that no matter how much trash and chemicals humans dumped into them, the effects would be negligible. Proponents of dumping in the oceans even had a catchphrase: "The solution to pollution is dilution."

Today, we need look no further than the New Jersey-size dead zone that forms each summer in the Mississippi River Delta, or the thousand-mile-wide swath of decomposing plastic in the northern Pacific Ocean to see that this "dilution" policy has helped place a once flourishing ocean ecosystem on the brink of collapse.

Pollution's Many Forms

There is evidence that the oceans have suffered at the hands of mankind for millennia, as far back as Roman times. But recent studies show that degradation, particularly of shoreline areas, has accelerated dramatically in the past three centuries as industrial discharge and runoff from farms and coastal cities has increased.

Pollution is the introduction of harmful contaminants that are outside the norm for a given ecosystem. Common man-made pollutants that reach the ocean include pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, detergents, oil, sewage, plastics, and other solids. Many of these pollutants collect at the ocean's depths, where they are consumed by small marine organisms and introduced into the global food chain. Scientists are even discovering that pharmaceuticals ingested by humans but not fully processed by our bodies are eventually ending up in the fish we eat.

Many ocean pollutants are released into the environment far upstream from coastlines. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers applied by farmers inland, for example, end up in local streams, rivers, and groundwater and are eventually deposited in estuaries, bays, and deltas. These excess nutrients can spawn massive blooms of algae that rob the water of oxygen, leaving areas where little or no marine life can exist. Scientists have counted some 400 such dead zones around the world.

Solid waste like bags, foam, and other items dumped into the oceans from land or by ships at sea are frequently consumed, with often fatal effects, by marine mammals, fish, and birds that mistake it for food. Discarded fishing nets drift for years, ensnaring fish and mammals. In certain regions, ocean currents corral trillions of decomposing plastic items and other trash into gigantic, swirling garbage patches. One in the North Pacific, known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, is estimated to be the size of Texas. A new, massive patch was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean in early 2010. 

Noise Pollution

Pollution is not always physical. In large bodies of water, sound waves can carry undiminished for miles. The increased presence of loud or persistent sounds from ships, sonar devices, oil rigs, and even from natural sources like earthquakes can disrupt the migration, communication, hunting, and reproduction patterns of many marine animals, particularly aquatic mammals like whales and dolphins.

End of the "Dilution" Era

Humans are beginning to see the shortsightedness of the "dilution" philosophy. Many national laws as well as international protocols now forbid dumping of harmful materials into the ocean, although enforcement can often be spotty. Marine sanctuaries are being created to maintain pristine ocean ecosystems. And isolated efforts to restore estuaries and bays have met with some success.

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Did You Know?

Plastic resin pellets called "nurdles" are some of the most common bits of pollution littering the oceans. These pea-size nubs are manufactured by the billions and used as raw materials in the making of plastic goods.

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