The real danger to North America’s west coast.
We hear a lot about the Keystone XL pipe line project through the sensitive North American areas and the issue of oil tankers potentially polluting the coast of British Columbia in an accident and damaging its pristine northern Pacific Ocean environment, with its rich biosphere.
In the meantime, from the US Oregon coast via Tofino on Vancouver Island to the Haida Gwaii islands, the coast from Prince Rupert to the uppermost tip of the islands at Masset, pretty much the whole west coast to the north, possibly including the Alaskan coast, is currently being polluted by plastics.
We know that plastics release estrogen-mimicking hormones into the environment. If you like to know more about the various chemicals released by plastics, click here.(http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/ehs/news/dangers-of-plastic)
This process happens directly by the deteriorating plastic releasing its chemicals into the ocean water, as well as indirectly by the sea creatures swallowing the plastic pieces, thinking it is food. Then that chemical mix is transferred to humans at the top of the food chain eating the seafood, and depending on how much seafood one eats, humans will be poisoned, silently and secretly.
Vast quantities of plastic and other debris, estimated at five million tons of it, are washing up. This debris arrives currently all the way from Japan 5000 miles away, where two years ago a tsunami swept whole towns into the ocean. It is estimated that 70% of the debris has sunk to the bottom of the ocean already. The illustration below is from the National Post that indicates the progression of the debris field and its size.
The debris contains among other things many plastic articles of all kinds, from lawn chairs to plastic floats used in the farming of fish, barrels, twenty-liter containers, bottles and all types of other plastic products. A spectacular find in May last year was widely publicized in the media when a steel box container still had a Harley Davidson motorbike in it with a Japanese license plate, washed up on the shore of Naikoon Provincial Park on Graham Island on BC’s coast.
The Fifth Estate with Mark Kelly has produced a documentary titled Second Wave about this problem that is underestimated in its effects on our environment and kept quiet by the mainstream media. Why is this not a sexy news item? Maybe the photos explain it.
The documentary shows the influence of plastic in the debris. Plastic is notoriously slow to deteriorate, some say it will take centuries, and so it stays in the environment for a long, long time–many human generations long. Sharks and other teethed creatures play with and bite at the objects until these objects are damaged and easily break off into smaller pieces.
Until that time of complete deterioration, sea creatures will be eating plastic, generation after generation, mistaking those bits floating in front of their noses for food, gobbling up and gobbling up some more, until they die from an inability to digest this plastic mass in their stomachs.
The photo below is published by the US Navy.
Fish caught with this in their stomachs are processed for human food consumption anyway. As consumers we do not know how much oestrogen-like substance has been absorbed by the fish in its yummy salmon steak or lox before it got caught. We do not question when it arrives on our table.
That fish’s reproductive cycle is most likely also disturbed by the chemicals released in its body. Male reproduction is negatively affected by oestrogens; that is valid for humans and possibly also for animals. We might be anticipating a future crash in fish populations, as well as in human populations that eat a fair quantity of seafood. How much seafood is safe? Not a particularly sexy or welcome subject to write about in the media.
There is not much we can do. Nobody is to blame, as a tsunami is a natural disaster, not a man-made disaster in the case of a pipe line break or a oil tanker shipwreck.We felt sorry for the Japanese affected by this disaster. We donated to the relief efforts. The newsworthy quality has passed. We don’t want to hear about it anymore.
The media was full of photos and stories then. However, two years later, the effects are not a news item. The public’s attention is short-lived. As well, if we cannot blame anybody, the news reporters and their editors are not that quick to get involved, is my thesis. It is much sexier to vilify a political leader or a whole party, or even a whole nation, or a culture that has a different take on what religion or societal structure they want to maintain.
An illustration of this is what happened recently in the media in India, where suddenly a whole nation becomes aware of how they treat their female population after one young girl was gang raped on a public transportation bus and died. This sparked large demonstrations in the streets to protest the injustices women experience by being assaulted and raped with impunity as a common occurrence.
Without being able to point the finger at anybody or any group in particular, a news item like this debris pollution on our west coast just becomes a depressing item. Who really wants to know about another disaster that is localized, has no solution, and does not affect the reader? Or so they think.
In this case the British Columbia provincial government and possibly also the state of Alaska become the aggrieved parties who will have to deal with, and clean up the millions of tons of debris that washes up daily now. It will costs many billions to clean up that waste.
Although I am not advocating oil exploration, or for oil tankers to move through ecological sensitive areas, an oil spill will be a lesser mishap in comparison. Surface oil can be seen and can be quite effectively cleaned up, as the worst oil spill disaster of 2010 demonstrated, when a BP owned Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and released an estimated 5 billion barrels of oil over 3 months into the Gulf of Mexico. BP is an huge multinational corporation and was able to pay the costs for clean-up.
In the case of the tsunami debris field the national governments must be part of the solution, including the Japanese government, as the burden is too much to bear by a local government. In my view Japan has some moral responsibility to chip in for the clean-up, even if the earthquake and the resulting tsunami was a natural disaster.
Not only that which is visible, what about the 70% of tsunami debris that lies on the ocean floor somewhere between Japan and the west coast of North America? Whose responsibility is that? Is the international community prepared to address a problem that nobody can see and its effects that are not immediately noticeable? Who will pay, who will collect the global community’s tax payable for clean-up and who will organize this impossibly difficult endeavor?
Many will say that the ocean can absorb any pollution. It absorbs the pollution of ships dumping their waste and used oil–already a long standing well-known practice. A bit of debris is nothing and the oceans can handle that. Yes, dumping waste is illegal, but unenforceable. Or is it?
We overfish the waters already; our fish stocks are continuously studied by Fish and Wildlife Department officials and guesses made as to how much we can catch safely without driving certain fish populations into extinction. At this moment, the Japanese are engaged in the controversial acts of killing whales for food, populations that are elsewhere a protected species. Do we really need to be that reckless as a species driving other species into extinction?
Should we not as nations get on the same environmental page and have an international agreement about when and where to harvest other species and enforce the agreements or laws with an army of seaworthy ships that can arrest and bring to trial those that breaks the laws, similar to the Somalia situation?
The route along the Somalia coast is patrolled by war ships of the international community to prevent the Somali pirates from hijacking the oil tankers passing by their coast. The international community is protecting the unencumbered trade in oil and the delivery of the product to its end destination. The international community can band together to protect and enforce protection of its business profit schemes and maintain the international waters for trade. If so inclined, it also could give the same priority to environmental pirates that still dump oil and waste in the ocean and might very well do serious, irreversible damage to our food sources in the long run.
At this time I don’t think that this abuse and criminal neglect of our environment on the oceans is an item that is being addressed. Indeed, the ocean can take some abuse and absorb some pollution. My question is, how much abuse? How can we get back to address this accidental pollution and its clean-up and deal with this issue effectively?
How much unchecked and unknown food contamination are you, as a British Columbian or Alaska resident, willing to take?
I also have a warning for other nations: it could happen to your world as well and how would you feel then?
My suggestion? I would really soon check the research on the effects of plastic in your body and make a decision whether to continue eating the lovely fresh seafood from our coast. Knowing now about the effects of the tsunami, I am looking at local seafood with different eyes.
In the next elections, I will be voting for those politicians that see the environment and us–the people living in it–as strongly connected and interdependent. I will vote for candidates who see the environment as the source of our food, vote for that candidate who equally protects the food safety, as well as jobs and economic and social benefits. The ocean and its creatures are essential to our lives and worth of our attention and protection.
What do you think about this debris field issue?
Do you think it is a national or a global issue?
Any thoughts at all or any comments you have, I would really appreciate.