Thursday, July 10, 2008

Addressing the concerns of a skeptic

A while back, we received this comment from Robert Williscroft, author of “The Chicken Little Agenda”. We’re posting his comment and responses here.

"You speak of "urgent action," but you have not really defined the problem. In the first place, "urgent action" should be reserved for "urgent problems," like an imminent hurricane or a flood crest moving down a river. I'm not saying plastic trash in the ocean isn't a problem – I simply don't know enough about it to evaluate the problem, and I suspect neither do you. It seems to me that your energy would be more productive applied to a thorough study of the "problem," to determine if it really is potentially serious. If it turns out to be something we need to be concerned about, then we have plenty of time to devise an appropriate solution without taking draconian steps that will impact our economy and the livelihoods of millions of people.

I detect in your comments more than a little political bias, and I suspect that your efforts are at least as much directed at political grandstanding as they are toward solving the plastic-junk-at-sea problem."

And now a few responses here:
A thorough study of the problem is precisely what Captain Charles Moore and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation have been doing since 1997, concluding that yes, it is a serious issue. And unfortunately, as we take our time devising “appropriate solutions”, the problem only continues to worsen. We need to adopt a precautionary principle, before implementing solutions becomes too late.
In addition to the impacts on marine ecosystems and human health, the plastic debris issue is a warning signal that our rampant consumerism and disregard for resources cannot continue unabated.

Here’s a response from Marcus:

Dear Robert G. Williscroft, PhD,

Let me clarify “urgent action” beginning with a story. During the summer of 2002 I was backpacking through Tanzania when news of a train wreck made headlines. In Dar es Salaam a passenger train lost connection to the engine while in the station and began sliding backwards. People on the train, mostly families leaving the city for their villages west, did not get the urgency of the moment. You could walk as fast as the train was rolling. The workers and engineers frantically tried to set brakes on the 20+ cars slowly rolling downhill. Those who studied the train mechanics and knew the regional geography could predict the future. They understood “urgent action”. The passengers did not until several hours and 60 miles later, when the train sped over 100 mph backwards, derailed, killing more than 200 people.

On our blog site there are many references to our organization, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. I urge you to visit site and read our peer-reviewed science articles describing the problem. In summary, after 6 expeditions to the North Pacific Gyre, we’ve discovered steadily increasing concentrations of plastic debris. Earlier this year Anna, Joel and I, founders of the JUNK project, joined Captain Charles Moore aboard the ORV Alguita for another expedition. Having yet to quantify the new samples, conservatively it appears the density of pelagic plastic has doubled since 2005.
You will also find another article, published in a peer reviewed scientific journal, about persistent organic pollutants (POPs) that absorb and adsorb onto plastic marine debris. We found high concentrations of PCBs, PAHs and pesticides on plastic floating in the North Pacific Gyre.
If you conduct a simple literature review, you will find other articles pointing to the many organisms that consume plastic marine debris. A meta-analysis of current literature found 267 species have been documented with plastic marine debris in or around their bodies. This includes 44% of all seabirds, 22 cetaceans, all marine turtles and countless fish. Our 2008 expedition revealed plastic particles in a quarter of the myctophid fish caught in our sampling nets. And in many cases, we are finding that those POPs are migrating from ingested plastic marine debris into to organisms that consume it.

Science has shown that plastic is rapidly accumulating in the world’s oceans. That plastic sorbs toxins, many of which are known human carcinogens, many organisms eat plastic. The scientific question that we are addressing now is, “Are persistent organic pollutants consumed by organisms bio-accumulating up the food chain and into the fisheries that we harvest?”
The environmental issue is apparent to the scientific community. The human health issue is becoming clear as good science gets presented, argued and published appropriately. What we see as a runaway train, requiring “Urgent Action” understandably falls on deaf ears to those not aware of the issue. Data determines urgency.

Again, I urge you to review the science behind the issue. I would enjoy a conversation about solutions, and request, as you suggest, keeping political grandstanding to other blogs.


Marcus Eriksen, PhD
Director of Research and Education
Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Navigator of JUNK


Robert G. Williscroft, PhD said...

I appreciate your reasoned response, but I still see little quantitative information to sink my teeth into. First, while the story of the train wreck is interesting, it misses the point. This was an example of an urgent problem that was NOT being addressed. I suspect you are addressing a no-urgent problem with unwarranted urgency. You state: “…the density of pelagic plastic has doubled since 2005.” This is the kind of statement that is widely used to camouflage fuzzy data. Mind you, I’m NOT saying you are doing this, but this isn’t substantive information. If there was one acre of trash in 2005 and not there is two acres (a doubling), it’s a non problem. If there were twenty thousand acres in 2005, and that has doubled – that strikes me as more noteworthy. But when compared to the vast expanse of the world’s oceans, is even that a “problem” with urgent considerations?

To illustrate what I mean, in the 1960s we identified a “problem” with the appearance of DDT in marine organisms. Over a period of time, concerned individuals and organizations, using “draconian” tactics, managed to ban world-wide use of DDT. Before the ban we had nearly wiped out malaria and other insect born diseases. Now, while the DDT levels found in marine organisms is disappearing, malaria kills tens of thousands world-wide every year, and is on a dramatic increase. In effect, we solved a non-urgent problem using draconian measures, and created a very urgent problem that we don’t even know how to address.

Do we really understand the effect ingesting plastic bits and pieces has on marine organisms? On a second order, do we understand how POPs migrate “…from ingested plastic marine debris into to [sic] organisms that consume [them]…”? You state that you “…found high concentrations of PCBs, PAHs and pesticides on plastic…,” but did not quantify these “high concentrations.” Just because a publication is peer reviewed does not mean that articles in the publication carry useful information or even correct information. All it means is that the articles have passed a peer review process.

Once again, I’m not fighting you, but if you want to bring people like me aboard, you will need to be more specific, more quantitative. You will need to show that the problem you have identified truly is urgent, and you will need to demonstrate that your proposed solutions do not cause more problems than they solve.

Solar Panda said...


I really enjoyed reading your well-written and researched response to Robert Williscroft, especially the opening analogy to a run-away train.
Working in the solar industry, we run into the same kind of skepticism daily; it's nice to see that you responded eloquently yet forcefully.

Keep on rafting!

Anonymous said...

Remember the saying 'where there's smoke there's fire'. It is obvious that there is something wrong even if we don't know the full extent of it yet.

LL said...

Getting the Ocean's mass in perspective

As scientist Jim Lovelock observed, "Although the weight of the Oceans is 250 times that of the atmosphere, it is only one part in 4,000 of the weight of the Earth." 1/4000 = 0.00025

Therefore, only 0.025% of Earth's mass is Water. Yet we tend to think of our Oceans as a vast and endless resource, free to everyone.

Scientists also point out, "If the Earth were a globe 12 inches in diameter, the average depth of the ocean would be no more than the thickness of a piece of paper, and even the Deepest Ocean Trench would only be a tiny dent, one third of a millimeter deep. (0.3 mm = 0.01 in) Since the Ocean's mass is 0.025% that of Earth's mass, our Oceans can more accurately be appreciated as the priceless public reservoirs they are, the only living Oceans in the entire universe. Mars might have some frozen mud.

Knowing the Earth's "surface" is 70.8% water, often leads a popular conclusion... there might be more Ocean than Earth. Unfortunately, this popular "solution" is legal and leads to a global assumption... that pollution might be absorbed and simply rendered harmless... within the Ocean's vastness.

Millions of Tons of toxic chemicals are discarded into rivers worldwide, while the industry leaders "cross their fingers" in a futile false hope that the chemicals will quietly be absorbed by the living Oceans.

To compound the problem, millions of tons of plastic, also dumped 24/7, by the barge load, into our Oceans, does not "break down" for almost 1000 years, but it does break into tiny bits of plastic "dust" or "snow. Then the PCB's, that are now major contaminants in the Ocean, are attracted to the plastic bits like a magnetic sponge. Marine animals can't differentiate the plastic snow from plankton, so they eat the plastic bits, and become toxic with PCB's, causing immune system failure.

As the toxins slowly distribute worldwide by the Ocean's conveyer belt currents, the entire food chain is affected, from the tiny coral polyps that make world's largest reefs, to whales feeding on plankton and other particles suspended in the water column, including PCB laden plastic "snow".

An impairment to the immune systems of living creatures is being observed globally, from the tiny coral polyps, to the giant killer whales, and finally the humans themselves, seated at the top of the food chain, consuming industrial leftovers that will not bio-degrade in nature for thousands of years.

ATSDR points out that every child born from a mother who consumed Great Lakes fish during their pregnancies were three times (3X) more likely to have lower IQs and twice (2X) as likely to be TWO grade levels in reading comprehension behind their peers.

Other studies have shown children who's mothers consumed PCB-contaminated fish had lower birth rates, reduced motor reflexes and neuromuscular function, poor short-term and long-term memory, weakened immune systems and greater susceptibility to infections, among other problems.

Now tons of the sludge from water treatment plants, containing PCB's, are being dumped onto agricultural land. Scientists are scrambling just to name the new diseases as they discover them and counting the countless number of species that just became extinct, and the oil emperors fiddle in the stock market while making world record profits. I know this is hard to believe, it was for me also, so Google it.

As a free nation... we the people... have spent more of our own tax dollars for exploring remote space and the mud on Mars than protecting the only "Living Oceans" in the entire universe while the planet become less inhabitable for humans. Who is really steering this over-heating planet, big business persons? Is bowing to the $tock market index given a higher priority than the World's Ocean Health index in Washington? As we awaken to the collapse of our Oceans, we begin to see the consequences of giving the "green light" to industry for dumping millions of tons of "known toxins" into the only known living Oceans in the entire universe.

At age thirteen, Jacques-Yves Cousteau's book, "The Silent World" was presented to me by my scuba instructor, when I was first certified as a scuba diver. I was thrilled with swimming and breathing underwater, enjoying a view of nature referred to as the "Silent World." Today, Jacques-Yves Cousteau must be looking down on the Oceans, and the dying coral reefs, with salty tears in his eyes.


Your comments are welcome,

Larry (at)

Key Largo, Florida

Will we just shop..
... until they all drop...

(click here to see the video!)
All life in the oceans, from coral reefs, to the great Orcas, are becoming immuno-suppressed via plastic snow laiden with PCB oil.

Open Door World . com

Anonymous said...

It sounds like China is starting to get it they just banned plastic bags.
The urgency of eliminating plastic effluent into the ocean stems from the fact that once it is there, it is extremely difficult to recover. California should consider a plastic bag ban, there are biodegradeable alternatives such as biobags mad of 100% biodegradeable PLA.