As World Water Day approaches, the earth is showing increasingly frequent signs of degradation. Even as recently as March 19, a whale that starved to death in the Philippines was found to have 40 kg of plastic in its stomach. It has never been more important to highlight the problems surrounding marine life and climate change, as well as other environmental problems like plastic contaminating the oceans.
Fortunately, UK Parliament is in the process of implementing multiple laws that aim to bring about a change and help marine life in the ocean. There is a recent directive which has been passed by European Parliament which focuses on banning a wide-range of single-use plastics.
In the UK, 700,000 plastic bottles are discarded every single day. Hopefully, the EU’s ban on single-use plastic will be implemented by 2021, and there are talks of laws to create recyclable plastic bottles by 2025. However, the UK has taken some steps towards laws on plastic, such as a cost of 5p per plastic bag used in supermarkets. Furthermore, there has been a proposed tax on the production or importation of plastic packaging that is not made from a minimum of 30% recyclable material.
On an even larger scale than the issue of plastic, climate change is causing a multitude of problems: coral bleaching; stormy weather; species moving homes; altering lifestyles; and acidic oceans, just to name a few. Coral bleaching is due to warmer temperatures causing the coral to expel algae (zooxathellae) which causes the coral to go white. And this problem is set to get even worse: the Intergovernmental Panel, a United Nations body for assessing the science in relation to climate change, have recorded that there will be a predicted 1.4C - 5.8C degree rise of global temperature by the end of the century. While bleached coral is not dead, it is extremely stressed and leads to a shorter life span.
The effect of this is that marine life is unable to carry on living in the coral reefs. In 2005, the US lost half of its coral reefs in the Caribbean due to coral bleaching. Furthermore, in BBC’s 2018 documentary ‘drowning in plastic’ Liz Bonnin revealed that plastic kills coral due to deadly bacteria that nurtures off it, increasing the amount of this bacteria from the natural level of 4% to a staggering 89%. This is due to plastic being a breeding ground for harmful bacteria, and with the rising temperature of the globe, and consequently the oceans, the bacteria will breed much faster. This means that the plastic in the ocean is spreading disease across the entire marine ecosystem.
In addition, climate change has caused more stormy weather, which has a variety of effects on marine life. Intense winds cause significant damage to the ecosystem by blowing debris and pollution into habitats. Mammals such as dolphins and sharks have the ability to detect the storms but stationary animals like coral polyps do not and are consequently harmed. Hurricanes have caused an estimated 15% reduction in coral and Hurricane Andrew saw Louisiana, USA, lose around 9 million fish.
Furthermore, the rise in temperature of the globe has led to species such as penguins and seals leaving their homes in the Antarctic Peninsula Region due to the reduction in sea ice. The removal of seals from certain areas, for instance, has altered the behaviour and diet of the polar bear. Their main meal was seals but since the seals have moved, due to scarce sea ice, they have had to start searching further for food and having to eat plastic or wasted food.
Another issue is ocean acidification; the National Geographic describes ocean acidification as the introduction of CO2 into seas, altering the water chemistry and ultimately affecting the lifecycles of marine organisms. There has been research to suggest that humans reducing the use of fossil fuels could reduce the acidity of the ocean and stop it from becoming a larger problem. The National Geographic goes on to state that there has been the first confirmed species to become extinct due to climate change. The Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys Rubicola) has disappeared from the Great Barrier Reef. This is said to be due to the destructive effects of extreme water levels resulting from severe meteorological events.
There is now evidence that plastic is being ingested at the start of the food chain by Plankton. This is explored in BBC’s documentary ‘Drowning in Plastic’. The effect this has is that the predators are then ingesting more and more plastic with each meal, in addition to the amount of plastic that is already in the ocean. A prime example discovered in the documentary was the diet of the flesh-footed shearwater, a sea bird. In the documentary, an organisation looks after the development of the birds and ensures that they survive into adulthood. Why? Because the majority of the fledglings were consuming masses of plastic due to the parent birds feeding it to them. The parents go and get food from the sea, which they believe to be living organisms, however, it turns out the majority of ‘food’ they collect is in fact pieces of plastic. This means that while the fledglings are growing, they are ingesting masses of plastic and not getting the nutrients needed from actual food. The conservation organisation pumps water into the fledglings’ stomachs so that they throw up any harmful waste and can subsequently recover. It turns out that every bird they have done this process to threw up plastic. One bird had over 100 pieces of plastic in its stomach.
In summation, it is obvious that the destruction of marine life is closely linked with climate change and plastic contamination. There needs to be more implementation of laws to protect the ocean from such devastating effects. The ban on single-use plastic needs to be more widely incorporated. Large arenas purchase huge numbers of single-use cups, even staff use them for drinking water during their shift. Additionally, a lot of the public are unaware of how to recycle. And, often, batches of recycled material end up contaminated and the material which was recyclable has to be thrown into general waste. An idea to combat this would be to hold more information sessions on recycling. And, when training staff at large venues, include training on what can and cannot be recycled. Furthermore, staff should bring their own water bottles to shifts so they are reusing one bottle instead of wasting more single-use plastic. Using a single plastic straw is not the end of the world for the individual, but that might be the straw that kills a marine animal or contaminates coral reefs.
LLB Leeds Beckett University
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