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