Rubbish and Reefs

Most of us have heard the horror stories and seen the gruesome pictures of plastic rings and bags that tangle and strangle marine birds and animals.  This is no doubt a problem, but marine debris (garbage in the sea), also poses a threat to coral reefs.

During the eleven years that I have been an avid SCUBA diver, I’ve encountered a number of ‘interesting’ things on reefs.  I’m not talking about interesting fish or dolphins or seaturtles, but rather about things that shouldn’t be there.

Tangled nets and lines in the ocean. Photo courtesy of NOAA/flickr.

From fishing lines and plastic bags, to cans of spray-paint, to tennis shoes and Barbie dolls, I’ve seen quite a lot of garbage on coral reefs.  I have also participated in numerous reef-clean up dives, where divers like myself used SCUBA diving to clean up trash from coral reefs.  Collecting garbage from reefs is harder than it sounds.  Care must be taken to avoid further damage to the reef during the cleanup process. At times, new life has already begun to grow on reef rubbish, and it must therefore be left in place in order to avoid breaking coral.

UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) estimates that 6.4 million tons of garbage end up in the ocean every year. The exact amount of trash in the ocean is only an estimate, given the vastness of the ocean.  However, we do know, without a doubt, that in many parts of the world, marine debris is harming marine animals and ecosystems, including coral reefs.

What does garbage do to coral reefs?  It breaks them into pieces, and can literally strangle and suffocate the coral. From the EPA, we learn that marine debris harms coral reefs in two ways.  First, it causes physical damage.  It gets caught on pieces of coral and either breaks or smothers these delicate creatures. Additionally, debris harms other animals, such as fish and sea turtles, which make up important parts of the coral reef ecosystem.

Garbage on a Beach in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of John Schneider/Flickr.

The threat of marine debris to coral reefs is constant, but it is amplified during tropical storms and hurricanes, when churning oceans can cause large chunks of heavy marine debris to smash into coral reefs, physically breaking them apart.  Derelict fishing gear, including nets and lines, is one of the most damaging forms of marine debris to coral reefs.  According to the National Oceanic and Atomospheric Administration’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, Hawaii’s coral reefs are under serious threat from marine debris in the form of derelict fishing gear.  NOAA points out that in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, fishing nets and other gear are seriously damaging the coral reefs. These nets are not small nets that people use by hand, but rather massive fishing nets that are used by massive boats to catch tons upon tons of fish for the commercial fishing industry (see the photo below).

Fishing nets collected from the ocean by the U.S. Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard/Flickr.

Thankfully, NOAA and other organizations are not sitting by idly.  NOAA is working to survey the amounts of marine debris found on the coral reefs, inform the public about the problem, and direct clean up projects.  Scientists at NOAA are also analyzing the types of nets that they find on reefs in order to determine which fishing industries are culpable.  According to NOAA’s website, scientists hope that greater knowledge about the distribution of nets on reefs will help them understand the scope of the problem and will also be useful to help promote policy to regulate marine debris.

Marine debris is also dangerous to scuba divers who can get tangled in fishing nets and wires.  Furthermore, it is NOT what we are looking to see down there!  Think about going to a park, and finding the flora and fauna interspersed with human refuse, and you will get the point.

Sometimes, it seems more difficult to tackle environmental problems that are out of site. Often times, in the case of marine debris, we can visibly see the problem. When we do encounter an errant net in the sea, or a piece of plastic stuck on a coral reef, we can make the effort to remove it. True, we can’t rid the entire ocean of trash on our own, but we can start, one diver, or one person at a time by cleaning up after ourselves when we are on the beach or on a boat or by participating in organizaed SCUBA-based reef cleanup dives.  Earlier this year,150 divers in Clearwater, Florida, removed an astonishing 1500 lbs of marine debris, according to the Bay News coverage of the cleanup event. For those of you who are more inclined to stay on land, beach cleanups are a great way to be involved.  The cleaner our beaches the less likely it is that trash will be washed out to sea.  Let’s work together to keep our reefs clean, for our sake, and for theirs.

For those of you who are looking to jump on in, and take garbage out of coral reefs, here is a useful link from the Coral Reef Alliance with tips on how to properly cleanup of coral reefs: Underwater Cleanup.

The video below shows a diver’s cleaning up marine debris on a coral reef in Florida.  The cleanup was an initiative of the coral reef environmental organization, Reef Rescue.  Check out your local dive shops and reef-advocacy organizations for opportunities to participate in reef cleanups in your area.

3 thoughts on “Rubbish and Reefs

  1. Merav

    Great blog! It reminds me of the movie Happy Feet, when the penguin had a six pack plastic thing around his neck, and it was suffocating. It was really sad, especially because it shouldn’t belong there. Clearly we need to take responsibility for the pollution and clean up the coral reefs. Thanks for bringing this to my attention!

  2. Julia

    The amount of garbage that has accumulated in some of these places is really astounding. These are the sorts of things that need to be publicized more widely, so that everyone can understand the scope of the pollution!

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