Cleaning up 10 Million Pounds of Trash From Our Oceans

By Mica D’Alesando

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated eastern Japan. The disaster claimed nearly 16,000 lives and more are still missing and presumed dead. People around the world gathered in support for the victims of the terrible event. 

On the same day, five million tons of wreckage – the remains of homes, boats, and other remnants of the people who lived there – were washed out to sea. In November, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a revised model showing a field of debris floating just north of Hawaii. NOAA scientists add that a larger and less concentrated debris field stretches from Alaska to the Philippines.

It is obviously problematic to have debris (of any kind) floating in the ocean. Marine debris can degrade habitats and entangle and poison marine life. It can even affect human health and navigation safety. Environmentalists have long been concerned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Debris from the Japanese earthquake is especially bad because large items, like docks, carry non-native species to U.S. shores. Researchers have found over 165 Japanese species on items that have washed up in the United States. These species could displace current marine life.

These are serious problems. We ask ourselves what’s being done now?

NOAA gave each of the five West Coast states $250,000 initially from a $5 million gift from the Japanese government to clean-up debris. Oregon hasn’t spent that money yet, though state parks spokesman Chris Havel said in September 2013 that officials are stocking up on supplies and preparing for the fall and winter, when more debris is expected. In California, the Coastal Commission hosts events to cleanup the debris from the Japanese tsunami.

But debris from the Japanese tsunami is just part of the larger problem of trash in the ocean. In 2012, more than 500,000 volunteers picked up 10 million pounds of trash. Much of this trash was not from the Japanese tsunami.

Unfortunately, we often need a disaster to occur before we’re willing to do something to protect the environment. The Japanese tsunami has drawn our attention to ocean debris and its effects on marine ecosystems. However, Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, said the issue is somewhat fading from the public’s mind.

Ocean protection doesn’t lie with one person, or one business, or one government, or one country. All humans are connected to water and the oceans. Oceans are a part of our cultural past and often play a key role in our spiritual present. We all want to ensure the future health of oceans.

The international support of victims of the Japanese tsunami was inspiring. But one can only hope that the world doesn’t need another national disaster before it stands together strongly to clean up ocean debris.

Check out this article on how to help clean up the trash in the ocean.

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Mica D’Alesandro is a freelance writer living in Baltimore.

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