Kat Meyer from the California Department of Fish and Game carries away the ropes that were entangled a whale on Samoa Beach on October 23. | Photo by Thomas Lal
Kat Meyer from the California Department of Fish and Game carries away the ropes that were entangled a whale on Samoa Beach on October 23. | Photo by Thomas Lal

The dangers behind marine debris

The staggering cost of commercial litter.

Along the coast, you can free your feet in the sand and enjoy the beautiful sounds of the ocean. But enter the water and you, like many marine creatures, may find yourself entangled in fishing gear or waste plastic.

As many may remember, a whale near Crescent City was found tangled in fishing equipment on shore. Two of HSU’s very own Marine Mammal Program went down to help. Despite efforts, the whale was unable to make it.

This experience is like many others globally.

According to NOAA Fisheries’ website, “Entangled animals may drown or starve because they are restricted by fishing gear, or they may suffer physical trauma and infections from the gear cutting into their flesh.”

The reason this is such a killer? Fishing gear counts for the largest percentage of plastic in the oceans.

Sea Shepherd Global wrote on their website, “Approximately 46% of the 79 thousand tons of ocean plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of fishing nets, some as large as football fields, according to the study published in March 2018 in Scientific Reports, which shocked the researchers themselves who expected the percentage to be closer to 20%.”

Ghost nets are nets that have stranded from their boats and continue catching marine life, tangling them and often creating mass bundles of nets.

On Humboldt State’s Marine Debris webpage, a study they mention called “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre” by C.J Moorea, S.L Moorea, M.K Leecaster, and S.B Weisberg, explains that “in the North Pacific Gyre the mass of plastic out-weighted the mass of plankton (small marine organisms) by six times, despite the fact that the number of individual organisms was five times higher than the number of plastic pieces.”

But it gets worse.

“The same study found that 98% of plastics found were polypropylene/monofilament line (fishing lines), thin films and unidentified plastic fragments,” The HSU Marine Biology website says.

“Lost/broken fishing gear such as netting and fishing string can entangle and kill large marine life such as sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, etc.,” Anna Caro, a third-year marine biology major at HSU, said in an email. “Most get trapped and struggle to escape, which usually makes the entanglement worse killing the marine life.”

This means that while there is a demand for seafood, there is a risk of fishing gear becoming lost and potentially causing harm.

“Scientists have still struggled to figure out the extent of the microplastics problem. Microplastics are being eaten by marine life and poisoning them, but not only is it terrible for the fish it is terrible for anything eating the fish including humans,” Caro said.

Caro was able to learn more regarding marine debris through education at HSU in biology seminars and classes.

Humboldt State also works closely with NOAA Fisheries to keep the oceans healthy and research them. Students can work with the Office of Response and Restoration’s Marine Debris Program to reduce waste and learn how to keep the oceans clean.

Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator Andrew Mason from NOAA expressed the issues of marine debris, especially fishing gear. Not only is this a marine loss, but an economic loss as well.

350 species found entangled in marine debris, including all 7 species of sea turtle, 27.4% of seabird, and 39.8% of marine mammals, according to Mason.

“It’s reaIly only these moments where we have our large sea life that are tangled up and it really brings awareness to the issue… it’s heartbreaking,” Mason said.

Mason says that the problem itself stems from humans and extends beyond just lost fishing gear.

“The scope of the issue is global, and for people to understand not just what they do on a boat, but it’s all of the waste we generate,” he said.

But the issue can be worked on, and hopefully fixed. People can participate in cleaning events, as well as picking up debris if it is safe for them to do so.

If debris is too large, like a ghost net, you can call the Department of Fish and Wildlife and inform them of the debris so it can be professionally handled. As well, if you find an entangled animal, call for help instead of handling it alone, as you or the animal may get hurt.

But just picking up trash isn’t enough.

“Stop use of single-use plastics and find ways to reuse our waste, recycling should not be the first choice since many plastics do not get recycled,” Caro said. It starts with striving for a zero-waste lifestyle and being aware of your waste and trying to find uses for it before trashing it.”

NOAA also funds grants to clean up the marine debris.

“Removal is treating a symptom, prevention is treating the root cause,” Mason said.

For Mason, education is the key, providing people the sources to understand how to properly use fishing equipment as well as giving the general public information about how to discard their waste correctly.

“The number one best way to address this problem and to help is to prevent these items from ending up in our marine environment,” Mason said.

Education can teach people who may not live directly in contact with the ocean how they are affecting the ocean.

“The ocean is key to our way of life and messing with the ecosystem can have unexpected impacts we are not yet fully aware of,” said Caro.

“Everything is connected,” Mason said. “Everything we do has an impact.”

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