Ocean Action Hub

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Turning Ocean plastic into Roads

Waste in the ocean, especially plastic is eating up the fishes making them vulnerable and close to extinction.

People near have been fishing for a very long time. Their livelihood depends on it. But due to the increasing use of plastic and more horrifying dumping of that plastic into the ocean, our marine life has been endangered. Not only the marine is affected, the nets and other equipments used by fishermen gets destroyed.
This is a story of fishermen in Kerala who designed a way to not only help the fishermen save their tools but also reduce the effect of plastic in the ocean. With help from several government agencies, they’ve set up the first-ever recycling center in the region, to clean, sort and process all the sea-tossed plastic bags, bottles, straws, flip-flops and drowned Barbies that they fish out. So far, they’ve collected about 65 metric tons (71 short tons) of plastic waste.

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To honor an elephant, Indian temples are going plastic-free

9 Oct 2018 - Hindu temples in southern India are taking a stand against single-use plastic. Other faiths are taking notice.

9 Oct 2018 - TRIVANDRUM, INDIA - There’s no scholarly consensus on when, exactly, the Aranmula Parthasarathy Temple was built, though there’s evidence that a temple honoring the demon-slaying, lady-charming Hindu deity Krishna has stood on this parcel of land in southwest India since the 8th century.

Hundreds of years on, the temple appears to have absorbed objects and memories from nearly every year of its existence. There are murals from the 18th century and tarnished bronze deepam—oil lamps—that are at least a century old, as well as discolored patio chairs purchased sometime in the early aughts and gold streamers from a festival last winter.

The newest addition: Notices in bold, black lettering, printed on white A4 paper, pasted all around the temple’s inner sanctum. “Inside the temple premises, there is a compulsory ban on mobile phones, cameras, and plastic carry bags,” they say.

Disobey, and you may get stern looks from one of the dozen or so retirees who spend most of their days here, or be approached by a priest or administrator who will politely inform you that Aranmula is one of 1,058 temples in the south Indian state of Kerala that have pledged to eliminate plastic this year.

“We are trying to go back to the ancient days, when there was no threat of plastic,” says A. Padmakumar, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board, an administrative body that oversees all 1,058 temples, and resident of Aranmula village. It was his idea to phase out plastic throughout Kerala temples, though he says religious leaders had been advocating for a ban for years.

And the move is in line with national policy: in June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to eliminate all single-use plastic in the country by 2022. Individual states across the country—including Kerala—have already started to phase out, if not outright ban, certain forms of of it.

But convincing 1.3 billion Indians to give up the convenience of plastic isn’t going to be easy, Padmakumar says. “Already, just six months into our ban, we’re finding it difficult. Doing good is difficult,” he says.

“But that is why this work has to start in temples—these are our centers of culture.” If anything will convince Indians to give up plastic, he’s betting it’ll be their love for, and fear of, God.

Parabhrama or Plastic?

Actually, there’s something eerily unnatural, and ungodly, about plastic, says Thantri Suryakalady Jayasuryan Bhattathiripad, a pujari, or priest at Mangaladevi temple in northern Kerala. “I’m a farmer, as well. And it is very sad to see very old plastic packaging coming out of the soil when I plough my land,” he says. “Even the emblems, the brand names will still be on there—it’s like an immortal substance.”

With a laugh, he adds: “As far as I know, only Parabhrama—the Supreme Being—is supposed to last forever!”

The trouble is, Hindu rituals can involve lots and lots of stuff: camphor and incense to purify the air; butter, milk, and rosewater to offer at the shrine; oil to replenish the traditional lamps; turmeric and sandalwood powder to smear across the forehead and open one’s third eye. And these days, all of it is packaged in plastic, says Aneesh Mon, who sells supplies to devotees from a small stall just outside Aranmula temple.

In principle, he says, he fully agrees with the temple’s new rules. “But how is it possible when everything comes in plastic covers?”

Since the pledge took effect in January, Mon has made some changes. His convenient “pooja kits,” which include fruit and snacks to offer the gods, are now sold in reusable, biodegradable plates made from dried palm leaves, instead of plastic bags. But the mini bottles of oil and rosewater are still packaged in plastic.“This is how it comes, from the companies,” he shugs. “Though we’re working with suppliers to find some alternatives.”

Over the past few months, he’s had quite a few frustrating conversations—with the company that supplies him with rosewater, asking them if it’s really necessary to wrap their plastic bottles in an additional layer of plastic film, and with the company that makes the incense, pleading with them to consider paper packaging. And then there’s convincing his customers to pay an extra five rupees for the camphor wrapped in paper. “They say that if they come on a regular basis, the five rupees adds up.”

By next year, with help from temple administrators, he’s hoping to start buying oil by the gallon and decanting it into smaller clay or steel containers for devotees, which is a system that some temples in the region have already adopted. Other temples are avoiding packaging altogether by making their own rosewater and sourcing oil from smaller, local producers.

The problem is, the mass-produced, plastic-wrapped stuff is cheap and easy, he says. “Now we can’t even think of a world without plastic.”

Death of an Elephant

The need to imagine, and realize, a world without plastic is growing more and more urgent, says Thirumeni Rajeevararu, the head priest at Sabarimala, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Ayyapan in the heart of Kerala’s Periyar Tiger Reserve.

In January, a 20-year-old wild elephant in Periyar died after consuming some of the trash discarded by the tens of millions of Sabarimala pilgrims who trek, each winter, through more than twenty miles of heavily wooded forest to reach the shrine. A necropsy revealed that a large quantity of plastic had blocked up the animal’s intestines, causing internal bleeding and organ failure. Forest rangers also found a fully in-tact plastic bag in dung nearby.

“The death of the elephant in Periyar disturbed me a lot,” says Rajeevararu. “The elephant is an important animal for temples”—it is metaphysically connected to Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom.

“But it’s not just elephants. Other animals have died as well after eating plastic,” he says. These include deer and birds, according to local environmental non-profit Thanal.

“God is in nature,” Rajeevararu says. “So I consider it our dharma, our duty, to stop using plastic.”

Giving Up Plastic for God

Religious leaders at Sabarimala have been trying to phase out plastic for the past five years. “We are trying our maximum to implement a full ban,” he says, though it hasn’t been easy.

Tens of millions of pilgrims carry with them bottles of water and all manner of snacks, often packaged in plastic, and they tend to tote it all around in plastic bags. There are designated trash disposal points, and for the past several years, a group of volunteers have posted themselves along the Periyar trail to help collect and manage the pilgrims’ waste. But even a couple of hundred wardens are no match for the millions who trek through the forest.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/10/kerala-india-hind...

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You Can Help Turn the Tide on Plastic. Here’s How.

31 Aug 2018 - Do these six pain-free things, and you’ll help reduce the impact plastic is having on oceans and other waterways around the world.

31 Aug 2018 - In a world that can seem overwhelmed by potentially eternal plastic waste, are biodegradables the ultimate solution? Probably not. But it’s complicated. The industry is still debating what “biodegradable” actually means. And some plastics made of fossil fuels will biodegrade, while some plant-based “bioplastics” won’t.

Biodegradable plastics have been around since the late 1980s. They initially were marketed with the implied promise that they’d somehow disappear once they were disposed of, just as leaves on the forest floor are decomposed by fungi and soil microbes. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Biodegradables don’t live up to their promise, for example, in the dark, oxygen-free environment of a commercial landfill or in the cool waters of the ocean, if they should end up there. You can’t throw them in your backyard compost either. To break down, they require the 130-degree heat of an industrial composter. Many industrial composters accept only plastics that meet certain standards, ensuring they will leave no fragments behind that can harm the environment or human health. And if you throw some biodegradables in with recyclables, you might ruin the latter, creating a mix that can no longer be relied on to make durable new plastic.

In 2015 the United Nations Environment Programme wrote off biodegradables as an unrealistic solution that will neither reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the oceans nor prevent potential chemical or physical harm to marine life. It concluded that the label “biodegradable” may actually encourage littering.

Some engineers are looking for ways around these obstacles. Jenna Jambeck and her colleagues at the University of Georgia’s New Materials Institute are using polymers synthesized by microbes to make packaging they hope will compost readily and biodegrade in the ocean. Corn chip bags are their first target.

Polymateria, a British firm, is taking a different approach, developing chemical additives to help biodegrade any plastic—bio based or synthetic—more quickly. The firm aims to be the “Tesla” of biodegradable plastics; CEO Niall Dunne says the goal is a product that will “harmonize plastics with the biosphere.”

It’s a tall order. Even the best biodegradable product won’t magically disappear. A plastic container robust enough to carry a gallon of milk can’t decompose like paper. A flowerpot, one of Polymateria’s experimental products, could take up to two years to dissolve if tossed in a ditch, Dunne concedes. Biodegradables, some critics say, don’t address the fundamental problem: our throwaway culture.

“What is it that we are promoting?” asks Ramani Narayan, a Michigan State University chemical engineering professor. “Throw it away, and eventually it will go away?” The more responsible approach, he says, is a “circular economy” model, in which everything is reused or recycled and “any ‘leakage’ into the environment, whether biodegradable or not, is not acceptable.”

Norway has shown how far the recycling of plastic bottles—a big part of beach trash—can go. It now recovers 97 percent of them. Its trick: deposits as high as 2.5 kroner (32 cents) and machines, found at most supermarkets, that ingest bottles and spit out refunds.

But recycling can go only so far. Part of the solution, many say, must be to use less disposable plastic in the first place. The “zero waste” movement, which dates to the mid-1990s, is gaining favor. Hundreds of communities worldwide are embracing it—including the downtrodden industrial town of Roubaix, France, where the success of a citizens’ campaign shows that zero waste is more than an affectation of wealthy liberals.

On the contrary, the idea seems to have a cross-cutting, almost spiritual appeal. In the U.K., the Church of England asked its flock to give up plastic packaging and disposables for Lent this year. Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May called for supermarkets to set up plastic-free aisles, where food is sold in bulk. She’s also considering a tax on single-use plastics such as take-out containers. It’s all part of her government’s campaign to rid the country of plastic waste within 25 years.

China is providing motivation. For nearly three decades it has bought about half the world’s recyclable plastic. But this year it called a halt to most scrap imports. Recyclables are now piling up in the countries that generated them. “That pushes the question upstream,” Jambeck says. “We hope it will push towards more circular management.”

Six Things You Can Do (and Feel No Pain)

1. Give up plastic bags. Take your own reusable ones to the store. A trillion plastic shopping bags are used worldwide every year, and 100 billion in the United States alone—that’s almost one per American per day. The average Dane, in contrast, goes through four single-use bags per year. Denmark passed the first bag tax in 1993.

2. Skip straws. Unless you have medical needs, and even then you could use paper ones. Americans toss 500 million plastic straws every day, or about 1.5 per person.

3. Pass up plastic bottles. Invest in a refillable water bottle. Some come with filters if you’re worried about water quality. A handful of cities, including Bundanoon, Australia, and San Francisco, have banned or partially banned bottled water. But around the world, nearly a million plastic beverage bottles are sold every minute.

4. Avoid plastic packaging. Buy bar soap instead of liquid. Buy in bulk. Avoid produce sheathed in plastic. And while you’re at it, give up plastic plates and cups. The French are (partially) banning the stuff.

5. Recycle what you can. Even in rich countries, recycling rates are low. Globally, 18 percent of all plastic is recycled. Europe manages 30 percent, China 25—the United States only 9.

6. Don’t litter. The Ocean Conservancy has run beach cleanups for 30 years. Of the top 10 types of trash they find, the only nonplastic item is glass bottles. Worldwide, 73 percent of beach litter is plastic: cigarette butts (the filters), bottles and caps, food wrappers, grocery bags, polystyrene containers. In 2016 the conservancy collected 9,200 tons of trash in 112 countries—around a thousandth of what enters the ocean each year.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-solut...

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We Know Plastic Is Harming Marine Life. What About Us?

30 Aug 2018 - There often are tiny bits of plastic in the fish and shellfish we eat. Scientists are racing to figure out what that means for our health.

30 Aug 2018 - In a laboratory at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, in Palisades, New York, Debra Lee Magadini positions a slide under a microscope and flicks on an ultraviolet light. Scrutinizing the liquefied digestive tract of a shrimp she bought at a fish market, she makes a tsk-ing sound. After examining every millimeter of the slide, she blurts, “This shrimp is fiber city!” Inside its gut, seven squiggles of plastic, dyed with Nile red stain, fluoresce.

All over the world, researchers like Magadini are staring through microscopes at tiny pieces of plastic—fibers, fragments, or microbeads—that have made their way into marine and freshwater species, both wild caught and farmed. Scientists have found microplastics in 114 aquatic species, and more than half of those end up on our dinner plates. Now they are trying to determine what that means for human health.

So far science lacks evidence that microplastics—pieces smaller than one-fifth of an inch—are affecting fish at the population level. Our food supply doesn’t seem to be under threat—at least as far as we know. But enough research has been done now to show that the fish and shellfish we enjoy are suffering from the omnipresence of this plastic. Every year five million to 14 million tons flow into our oceans from coastal areas. Sunlight, wind, waves, and heat break down that material into smaller bits that look—to plankton, bivalves, fish, and even whales—a lot like food.

Experiments show that microplastics damage aquatic creatures, as well as turtles and birds: They block digestive tracts, diminish the urge to eat, and alter feeding behavior, all of which reduce growth and reproductive output. Their stomachs stuffed with plastic, some species starve and die.

In addition to mechanical effects, microplastics have chemical impacts, because free-floating pollutants that wash off the land and into our seas—such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and heavy metals—tend to adhere to their surfaces.

Chelsea Rochman, a professor of ecology at the University of Toronto, soaked ground-up polyethylene, which is used to make some types of plastic bags, in San Diego Bay for three months. She then offered this contaminated plastic, along with a laboratory diet, to Japanese medakas, small fish commonly used for research, for two months. The fish that had ingested the treated plastic suffered more liver damage than those that had consumed virgin plastic. (Fish with compromised livers are less able to metabolize drugs, pesticides, and other pollutants.) Another experiment demonstrated that oysters exposed to tiny pieces of polystyrene—the stuff of take-out food containers—produce fewer eggs and less motile sperm.

The list of freshwater and marine organisms that are harmed by plastics stretches to hundreds of species.

It's difficult to parse whether microplastics affect us as individual consumers of seafood, because we’re steeped in this material—from the air we breathe to both the tap and bottled water we drink, the food we eat, and the clothing we wear. Moreover, plastic isn’t one thing. It comes in many forms and contains a wide range of additives—pigments, ultraviolet stabilizers, water repellents, flame retardants, stiffeners such as bisphenol A (BPA), and softeners called phthalates—that can leach into their surroundings.

Some of these chemicals are considered endocrine disruptors—chemicals that interfere with normal hormone function, even contributing to weight gain. Flame retardants may interfere with brain development in fetuses and children; other compounds that cling to plastics can cause cancer or birth defects. A basic tenet of toxicology holds that the dose makes the poison, but many of these chemicals—BPA and its close relatives, for example—appear to impair lab animals at levels some governments consider safe for humans.

Studying the impacts of marine microplastics on human health is challenging because people can’t be asked to eat plastics for experiments, because plastics and their additives act differently depending on physical and chemical contexts, and because their characteristics may change as creatures along the food chain consume, metabolize, or excrete them. We know virtually nothing about how food processing or cooking affects the toxicity of plastics in aquatic organisms or what level of contamination might hurt us.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-healt...

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This Machine Transforms Waste Into Walls

29 Aug 2018 - The portable Trashpresso is turning trash into building supplies.

29 Aug 2018 - Forget Bitcoin. The hottest potential new currency lies in our trash bins, Arthur Huang says, and he’s built a portable recycling plant to prove it. His solar-powered Trashpresso turns plastic waste into small tiles that can be used to build walls and floors.

“These machines are a prototype of what we think the future of recycling should be,” says Huang, a National Geographic emerging explorer. Huang has fully built two Trashpresso machines so far, hauling them by truck on 40-foot platforms to far-flung places like Yushu, a county on the Tibetan Plateau. Film star Jackie Chan features the expedition in his National Geographic television documentary Green Heroes.

No matter where a Trashpresso goes, it finds plenty of plastic to shred and compress: Yushu was no different. “That microcosm of a tiny township has exactly the same problem as big cities,” Huang says. Water bottles and other trash, often brought in by visitors, end up in rivers and eventually the oceans.

Huang imagines a network of hyperlocal trash-processing plants generating new products—and new ideas. His company, Miniwiz, is devoted to building such a circular economy. Since 2005, it has been transforming waste into furniture, accessories, buildings, even a small airplane—and encouraging people to think about packaging as a valuable commodity.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/genius-arthur-huang-...

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Can the Ocean Feed a Growing World?

17 Aug 2018 - Healthy fisheries may be the key to feeding ten billion people-if they're managed correctly.

17 Aug 2018 - If current population trends continue, experts estimate the world will need to double food production by 2050, and those same experts say fish are the answer.

“We're running out of options on land,” says Vera Agostini from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. “There's only so much we can take from the planet, so fisheries and aquaculture will be critical.”

In 2016, fisheries yielded 171 million tons of fish for consumption. By 2030, that number is expected to reach 201 million tons.

To reach that goal, fisheries face a host of environmental issues and economic concerns, and advocates are saying not all fishing might be worth the effort.

What Does the Fishing Industry Look Like?

Earlier this summer, the FAO published a comprehensive overview of the fishing industry called The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. It outlined the history of an industry they expect to play a critical role in meeting food consumption targets.

As a food source, fish can be a key source of protein. Just 150 grams of fish can provide the average adult with over half of their daily protein requirement. In developing countries with growing economies and individual wealth, like China, fish consumption is booming. In 2016, Europe, Japan, and the U.S. were consuming just under half the world's caught fish. By 2015, Asia was consuming two thirds of the world's caught fish.

Both a growing population and an increasingly wealthy one demand foods rich in protein and nutrition. A 2015 study published in the journal Food Security found that fish accounted for 10 percent of the world's food security.

The paper's authors, some former FAO analysts, wrote that they were making the case for fish to be increasingly added to the “overall debate and future policy about food security and nutrition.”

Catching Fish at Sea

Other researchers have been more skeptical about how fish can become a more bountiful food supply, particularly fish that comes from the high seas.

A paper published last week in the journal Science Advances found that fishing done on the high seas (any region 200 miles offshore any land) plays a negligible role in ensuring global food security.

“Most of the fish are sold as an upscale food items,” says ecologist Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer who authored the study. “Small local operations don't fish in the high seas. The fishing on the high seas is conducted by larger industrial fleets.”

That's because, between fuel and labor costs, high seas fishing is expensive. In another paper published by Sala in Science Advances last June, a team of researchers found that as much as 54 percent of high seas fishing would be unprofitable were it not for government subsidies.

To reach the most expansive parts of the globe, fishing vessels generally come from wealthier nations. Eighty-five percent of high seas fishing is done by China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea.

It's not just the high seas that are dominated by wealthy nations. On August 1, another Science Advances study confirmed that, even beyond the high seas, those five countries dominate industrial fishing as a whole.

Critics of industrial fishing, like Sala, argue that the FAO should focus on small-scale fisheries, not industrial ones, when strategizing how to feed the world.

A Rising Interest in Aquaculture

Unlike wild fish, farm-raised fish are grown in fresh water or salt water pens.

In 2014, the World Bank published a report stating that, by 2030, 62 percent of the world's seafood will be farm-raised.

In their 2016 report, the FAO found that aquaculture already accounted for 47 percent of the seafood we consume.

Nature study published in August of last year ambitiously outlined how aquaculture could potentially be scaled up to meet the world's demand for seafood without depleting ocean stocks.

In certain parts of the ocean, the study identified regions as deep as 650 feet that could be used to grow certain kinds of fish. By leveraging the available space they estimated, the study's authors concluded that 15 billion metric tones of fish could be farmed every year.

Will It Take a Toll on the Environment?

A greater emphasis on fishing worries some environmental activists.

At sea, increasing the number of wild-caught fish has led to overfishing, or entirely depleted fisheries. Strict regulations on where fishers can fish and what they can catch has been effective, says NOAA. In 2017, the organization published a report finding that overfished stocks in U.S. waters remained low. It's a significant improvement, they say, from nearly 20 years ago when several commonly eaten species were almost fished to extinction.

Fishing nets can also harm the environment. Some accidentally ensnare animals like marine mammals. Trawls can tear up habitats like coral. And old fishing nets are one of the top sources of ocean pollution.

The U.N. also intends to increase the amount of protected areas in the ocean. While some MPAs allow fishing, others are completely restricted and have previously left industry and activists competing for the same space. Both Sala and Agostini say they hope MPAs can be used as a tool to improve the health of adjacent stocks, making them more lucrative.

Farming fish, instead of catching them wild, isn’t always the silver bullet it sometimes seems.

Some fish species cope with small, contained spaces better than others, and those that don't are prone to developing and spreading diseases.

In offshore aquaculture farms, faulty cages or storms could allow diseased fish to escape, infecting wild populations nearby. Sites that are inland are also at risk from disease spread.

At the FAO, Agostini says the organization is optimistically planning to create more sustainable ocean practices while drastically increasing fish as a food source over the next 18 years.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/08/news-fisheries-aq...

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Meet Two Generations of Leading Ocean Protectors

19 Jul 2018 - Sylvia Earle and Jessica Cramp share what inspires them and how everyone can help make a cleaner, bluer world.

19 Jul 2018 - As one of conservation’s most accomplished and recognizable leaders, Sylvia Earle has campaigned on behalf of the ocean for half a century. Now well into her eighties, Earle maintains a demanding schedule of exploration, education, and advocacy work that has her spanning the globe and meeting with everyone from world leaders to school children.

Although it is often out of mind to the general public, the ocean is critical to life on Earth, says Earle, who has broken many exploration records in her long career, earning her the nickname “Her Deepness.”

“The ocean is so much more than fish,” says Earle, who is also a Rolex Testimonee. “Think carbon cycle, think climate, think the chemistry of the planet that has shaped all life on Earth.”

Earle has inspired millions of people around the world to care about the ocean, as well as conservation more broadly. One of the people she has reached is National Geographic explorer Jessica Cramp. Since 2011, Cramp has been living and working in the Cook Islands, where she studies sharks and marine ecosystems and advocates on their behalf. Her work helped build the case for the islands creating the world’s largest shark sanctuary at the time.

National Geographic sat down with Earle and Cramp for a conversation on their careers and the big issues affecting our ocean and the planet.

Coming from different generations of women marine scientists, what have you learned from each other?

SE: I love what Jessica does. She’s out there on the islands, just doing it. She’s seized this moment in time.

JC: I am very inspired by Sylvia. I think my work has only been possible because of her, and a handful of others who paved the way. It’s easier for me than it was for you, Sylvia.

What challenges have you both faced?

SE: The idea of a woman as equally competent is now more acceptable. We are getting there.

JC: There is still a lot of work to do, even in the country where I live [the Cook Islands]. I was recently the leader of an expedition there, and some of the locals didn’t know how to handle that. They kept looking to the men on my team for direction. They’d say things like, “Wait, she’s the boss? Really? There must be something really special about her.” They told me, “Why don’t you let the men do that and go learn the hula?”

SE: The media used to ask me questions about my hair and lipstick. They asked why I brought a hair dryer on expeditions. Well it wasn’t for our hair, it was for our ears. But I realized, at least I had their attention, so I would use that to tell the story of the ocean.

JC: A reporter recently told me that they didn’t know that scientists looked like me. Well, what does a scientist look like?

JC: Sylvia, I wanted to ask you, how did you get started on your journey?

SE: I started as a witness. As a kid, I saw the woodlands of New Jersey where I lived turned into housing developments. When my family moved to Florida when I was 12 it was a very different world, wonderful. I immersed myself in nature and the sea. But over time, I saw more transformation into bricks and mortar. Tampa Bay was so quickly altered. So I became a scientist.

At first, I just wanted to focus on the science. But I was eventually forced out of my shell by the media and public attention. Before long, I was testifying to the City of Chicago or to Congress on important issues. (Watch Earle introducing a president to his namesake fish.)

Jess, much of your work involves trying to get local communities involved in marine conservation. Why is that so important?

JC: I am a scientist, but all the science I do is policy oriented. Working with the local community is the central core to everything I’m doing. If you don’t follow up with the community, you have no backbone to any conservation protections. It won’t stick.

Sylvia, your work often spans from the local to the global. Can you share how you navigate such a wide scope?

SE: We need to work with local communities, just as we need to work with presidents, ministers, CEOs, and everyone else. And the fishermen, too, because they are out there all the time on the water and they know so much. It is often the fishermen who are the first to notice something, like crashing catches. Scientists sometimes fail to engage the people who are the best witnesses of all.

It is our role as scientists to convey to the public what we know. Generally, people want to have protected areas because they see it really matters.

You have both used advanced technology in service of ocean conservation; how important has that been as a tool?

SE: Millions of people are now getting out into the ocean, thanks to advances in technology like SCUBA gear. Rachel Carson only got to dive once in her life. In a copper diving helmet, she went about 10 feet down a ladder in murky water. But imagine if she had the ability to see what any hobbyist can see now? Let alone sophisticated tools like drones, ROVs, subs, and monitoring stations.

JC: You even lived underwater, didn’t you?

S: 10 times. Spending so much time underwater led to a breakthrough: I got to know fish as individuals. They do not behave the same. They each have their own attitude.

JC: Speaking of technology, a lot of data I rely on now in my conservation work comes from satellite tracking. We can see where commercial fishermen are operating, which is key to enforcement. Are they fishing where they are supposed to? It allows me to follow wide-ranging sharks and sea birds, which don’t respect national or park boundaries.

SE: That kind of work has led to shipping industries slowing down in critical migration pathways for whales and turtles.

JC: Technology has helped us develop policy to protect what we love.

SE: Technology does cut both ways. It’s a boon for science and a boon for exploitation. Fishing magazines are full of ads that say fish have no place to hide, because of sonar. The pinpoint navigation that is so important for science also gives fishermen an edge to go back to places precisely. When I was first starting out, it was very difficult to find the same exact spot in the ocean again.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/sylvia-earle-jess...

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How India’s Fishermen Turn Ocean Plastic Into Roads

23 May 2018 - In an innovative project, fishermen in Kerala collect ocean plastic for recycling, cleaning the ocean in the process.

23 May 2018 - KOLLAM, INDIAKadalamma—Mother Sea—that’s what Xavier Peter calls the Arabian Sea. His own mother gave him life, but Kadalamma gave him purpose, a livelihood. She has provided for him, offering up enough fish to feed his family and sell at the market. And she has protected him, sparing him thrice from cyclones and once from a tsunami.

Xavier has been trawling for shrimp and fish off India’s southwestern coast for more than three decades, his whole adult life. But lately, when he casts out his nets, he often comes up with more plastic than fish.

“Pulling the nets out of the water is extra effort, with all this plastic tangled in them,” he says. “It’s a bit like trying to draw water from a well—your bucket is somehow being weighed back down.”

He and his crew of six then spend hours separating the garbage from their catch.

For Xavier, the whole ordeal is a regular reminder that Kadalamma is sick, and that he and his community have made her so. “This is India’s greatest failure,” he says.

He used to just sigh and chuck the plastic back overboard. Not anymore.

Since August last year, he and nearly 5,000 other fishermen and boat owners in Kollam—a fishing town of 400,000 in India’s southernmost state, Kerala—have been hauling back to land all the plastic that they find while they’re out at sea. With help from several government agencies, they’ve also set up the first-ever recycling center in the region, to clean, sort, and process all the sea-tossed plastic bags, bottles, straws, flip-flops, and drowned Barbies that they fish out. So far, they’ve collected about 65 metric tons (71 short tons) of plastic waste. (Learn more about the plastic pollution crisis.)


It doesn’t take much to persuade coastal communities of the dangers of plastic, says Peter Mathias, who heads a regional union for fishing boat owners and operators. For years, he says, fishermen have been complaining to him about plastic getting caught in their gear.

And that isn’t even the worst of it. A decade back, a small crew like Xavier’s could easily pull in up to four tons of fish over the course of a 10-day expedition. These days, he’s lucky to get a fifth of that. Although many factors, including climate change and overfishing, are affecting fish stock, plastic is the most dramatically visible culprit.

Many types of fish easily mistake plastic for prey, and studies show that they can die of either poisoning or malnutrition as a result. Other sea life gets caught in and strangled by abandoned nylon fishing nets. Large patches of plastic on the sea bed are also blocking some species’ access to their breeding grounds.

“It is affecting our work,” Mathias says. “So in this way it’s our responsibility, and necessary for our survival as fishermen to keep the sea clean.”

Upholding that responsibility, however, proved to be a bit more complicated than Mathias initially anticipated. Fishermen were dredging up plastic without even meaning to; asking them to do so on purpose was an obvious next step. The problem was, their region had no system for municipal waste collection, let alone a recycling program. When a nearby village of clam divers in Kerala tried to start a similar program to clean up Kerala’s backwaters, they realized they had no way to dispose of all the garbage they scooped up. They were effectively just transferring litter from lake and riverbeds back to land.


Last summer, Mathias approached J. Mercykutty Amma, the state minister of fisheries, and a fellow Kollam native, for help. “I said, if we take it upon ourselves to collect plastic from the sea and bring it back to land, can you help us do something with it?” he says.

She said sure, but she probably couldn’t make it happen on her own. So, about a month later, she roped in five other government agencies, including the department of civil engineers, who agreed to help build a recycling facility, and the department for women’s empowerment. That agency is tasked with improving employment opportunities for women, in an area where many fields, like fishing, had long been dominated by men. So the agency helped hire an all-female crew to work there.

For the past several months, a group of 30 women have been working full time to painstakingly wash and sort plastic that the fishermen collect. Most of it is too damaged and eroded to recycle in traditional ways. Instead, it’s shredded into a fine confetti and sold to local construction crews who use it to strengthen asphalt for paving roads. The proceeds—along with government grant money—cover the women’s salaries, about 350 rupees ($5) per day. The system isn’t completely self sufficient, but it will be by next year, Mathias hopes.

“We’ve roped in so many groups, so quickly for this effort,” he says. But he’s proudest of the fact that “this comes from us, it comes from the fishermen.”

They’ve already helped a couple of nearby fishing communities, including the aforementioned clam collectors, procure funding to start up their own plastic collection and recycling programs. Soon, he says, fishermen “through all of Kerala, all of India, and all of the world will join us.”

It’s a strong statement, but his confidence isn’t necessarily misplaced, says Sabine Pahl, a psychologist with the International Marine Litter Research Unit at the University of Plymouth in the U.K. Pahl, who researches how to convince people to take better care of the planet, says involving fishing communities in the fight against ocean pollution makes sense, and has worked in the past. Since 2009, the northern European environmental group KIMO has been recruiting fishermen in parts of the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, and the Faroe Islands for a similar program called Fishing for Litter.


The Indian program may have even wider potential, based on “the fact that it’s the fishermen taking the initiative,” Pahl says. In her research, she’s found that the most effective environmental initiatives are community-led, and “intrinsically motivated”—meaning motivated by altruism and a love for nature and wildlife.

“It’s truly powerful, because the fishermen are also in the best position to convince the rest of the community-—their families, their neighbors—of the dangers of plastic,” she says.

That’s exactly what they’re doing. Many of the fishermen at Kollam harbour say that nine months into the program, the amount of debris that gets caught in their nets has markedly reduced. But ultimately, they’re hoping to altogether stop the flow of plastic into the ocean. To that end, all 5,000 of them have pledged to reduce their personal use of plastic, or at the very least make sure it ends up at the recycling plant rather than in the ocean. Mathias and Xavier say they also aren’t opposed to strategically using guilt to stop people from littering.

“I tell them, ‘If you keep polluting the ocean with plastic… as fishermen, our livelihoods will cease to exist,” Mathias says. That, he says, gets through to them almost every time.

CONTINUE READING: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/05/fishermen-kerala-india-recyc...

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Planet or Plastic? We made plastic. We depend on it. Now we're drowning in it.

16 May 2018 - The miracle material has made modern life possible. But more than 40 percent of it is used just once, and it’s choking our waterways.

16 May 2018 - If plastic had been invented when the Pilgrims sailed from Plymouth, England, to North America—and the Mayflower had been stocked with bottled water and plastic-wrapped snacks—their plastic trash would likely still be around, four centuries later.

If the Pilgrims had been like many people today and simply tossed their empty bottles and wrappers over the side, Atlantic waves and sunlight would have worn all that plastic into tiny bits. And those bits might still be floating around the world’s oceans today, sponging up toxins to add to the ones already in them, waiting to be eaten by some hapless fish or oyster, and ultimately perhaps by one of us.

We should give thanks that the Pilgrims didn’t have plastic, I thought recently as I rode a train to Plymouth along England’s south coast. I was on my way to see a man who would help me make sense of the whole mess we’ve made with plastic, especially in the ocean.

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across. On Hawaii’s Big Island, on a beach that seemingly should have been pristine—no paved road leads to it—I walked ankle-deep through microplastics. They crunched like Rice Krispies under my feet. After that, I could understand why some people see ocean plastic as a looming catastrophe, worth mentioning in the same breath as climate change. At a global summit in Nairobi last December, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme spoke of an “ocean Armageddon.”

And yet there’s a key difference: Ocean plastic is not as complicated as climate change. There are no ocean trash deniers, at least so far. To do something about it, we don’t have to remake our planet’s entire energy system.

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2018/06/plastic-planet-waste...

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Here Are Some Alternatives to Reef-Damaging Sunscreen

23 Apr 2018 - Harmful chemicals from sunscreen can leach into the ocean and damage coral. Here are some sun-blocking alternatives.

23 Apr 2018 - From a distance, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an underwater gem. The reef’s colorful corals serve as a submerged garden for a vibrant marine ecosystem that draws visitors to the area from all over the world. Snorkelers and scuba-divers alike can swim alongside some of the thousands of species of fish that make the reef their home. Lucky travelers might even catch a glimpse of the ecosystem’s dugongs or sea turtles.

But the ecosystem is fragile. Rising temperatures and harmful chemicals leaching into the water are bleaching the once-thriving reef. Human visitors might even be carrying some of these toxins on their skin.

When you swim with sunscreen on, chemicals like oxybenzone can seep into the water, where they’re absorbed by corals. These substances can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching. Even if you don’t go swimming after applying sunscreen, it can still go down drains when you shower. Aerosol can often spray large amounts of sunscreen onto sand, where it gets washed into our oceans.

Humans might be responsible for this contamination, but we’re also capable of helping heal these fragile underwater ecosystems.


Coral reefs all over the world are threatened by pollution, and many of the most popular destination spots have the most at-risk coral. In addition to the Great Barrier Reef, heavy human traffic in the bays of Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel are especially vulnerable.

Oahu’s Hanauma Baya state park that was formed within a volcanic cone, is one such example. The area’s turquoise surf and vibrant coral gardens draw nearly 1 million tourists each year, making the spot one of Hawaii’s best places for snorkeling. The bay is home to 450 species of fish and has the largest mass of reef anywhere in Oahu.

Hurricane Hole at the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, located off Saint John, is another popular spot. The submersed monument protects 22 miles of marine habitat, including 30 out of the 45 known coral species. Here, visitors can snorkel in the mangroves with coral, fish, and marine invertebrates.

Israel’s popular Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve is another example. The Gulf of Eilat houses the country’s only coral reefs, which are a major draw for tourists. Bridges built over top of the reefs allow visitors to get a peek at the coral and colorful fish it houses. Scuba divers can also dive along the front and slope of the reef for a more intimate view.

If we lose coral reefs, we will have lost a vital ecosystem. We could also hurt our global economy—coral reefs are a major tourist attraction and source of income for these popular vacation spots.


Hawaii has taken steps to ban sunscreen that’s not safe for coral, and lawmakers will vote on it at the end of the month. The bill could go into effect by July 2019.

But governments don’t want people to stop using sunscreen all together, due to risks of burns and skin cancer. The good news is there are alternatives that are safer—for people and for coral—that don’t include oxybenzone.

Haereticus Environmental Lab publishes a list each year of what sunscreens are safe for the environment, and organizations like the Environmental Working Group also publish a safe sunscreen guide. Mineral-based sunblocks that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer than the oxybenzone-containing alternatives. Sunscreens with “non-nano” size particles are safer because they can’t be ingested by corals. Some sunscreens have a combination of nano-size and non-nano size particles, and the Consumer Products Inventory has a database that can tell you if your sunscreen contains nanoparticles.

Some tour companies in popular destinations like Mexico make it mandatory for visitors to wear only biodegradable sunscreen. Select Hawaiian resorts give out free reef-safe sunscreen samples that don’t contain harmful chemicals. Many of these resorts will let patrons know of these restrictions in advance or list it on their websites.

Dermatologists say clothing is just as effective as sunscreen at protecting from the sun, with the only downside being it doesn’t completely cover the body. Many companies offer sun-protecting clothing, such as long-sleeve rash guards or full-body swimsuits. When all else fails, put on a t-shirt.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/features/sunscreen-destroying-...