The True Monsters of the Sea
2017, High School, Prose
We have all heard the stories of grisly sea monsters: massive, scaly, and deadly creatures who prey on innocent sailors in the night. However, these tall tales hardly compare to the horrors that the ocean has suffered at the hands of mankind. From plastic bottles to pesticides, most of the waste we produce on land eventually enters our waterways. In fact, about 1.4 billion pounds of trash pollute the ocean per year, and this statistic barely scratches the surface of the damage (“Ocean Pollution”). Pollution occurs through a variety of means, each with different effects and solutions, but they all share the underlying cause of human carelessness. Therefore, it is everyone’s responsibility to play their part in cleaning our oceans, so marine life can thrive for generations.
Marine pollution can be divided into two general categories: nonpoint source and point source. Of the two, nonpoint source is more widespread and difficult to contain because these contaminants derive from numerous different sources. This usually occurs through runoff: stormwater that collects pollutants before entering the ocean. When these contaminants – including pesticides, chemical fertilizers, detergents, oils, sewage, and plastics – pollute our waterways, they can inflict serious harm. For example, large particles can abrade organisms while small particles can interfere with gills, obstruct sunlight from photosynthetic life, and enter the marine food chain. Because plastics are not biodegradable, they break into tiny microplastics rather than decomposing. In certain regions, these microplastics have collected into massive patches of garbage. One such patch in the North Pacific Ocean has been found to contain 1.9 million microplastics in a single square mile (“Great Pacific Garbage Patch”). Even nutritive chemicals can devastate the environment in a process known as nutrient pollution. Nitrogen-rich fertilizers applied by farmers inland often collect in our waterways, spawning massive blooms of algae that rob the water of oxygen. This shortage of oxygen can prevent other marine life from thriving in the area. In fact, there exists at least 400 of these dead zones across the world. One such zone in the Gulf of Mexico has an area of 8,500 square miles (Garling). Furthermore, marine pollution is harmful not only to wildlife but also to humans. In 2009, researchers found that, “Fish … had residues of pharmaceuticals in them, including medicines used to treat high cholesterol, allergies, high blood pressure, bipolar disorder, and depression” (“Pharmaceuticals Found in Fish Across the US”). These pharmaceuticals can affect humans through the consumption of fish. Specifically, limited laboratory studies have shown that exposure to these chemicals can cause developmental problems in human cells. Therefore, nonpoint source pollution and runoff are pressing issues that need to be addressed before they further damage the environment.
In addition, point source pollution is defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as ” … any single identifiable source of pollution from which pollutants are discharged, such as a pipe, ditch, ship, or factory smokestack” (“Point Source”). This occurs when effluents – i.e., liquid waste – are discharged into bodies of water from sources such as chemical spills, factories, and oil refineries. About six million kilograms of oil were spilled worldwide through tanker incidents in 2016 alone (“Oil Tanker Spill Statistics”). One need only remember the tragedy of Deepwater Horizon to understand the danger of oil pollution. In 2010, the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, causing the largest oil spill in US history. Subsequently, the dolphin and whale populations in the area declined by half, over 167,000 sea turtles were killed, and over two million larval fish died (“The Deepwater Horizon’s Impact”). Because oil reduces the insulation of fur and the water repellency of feathers, oiled animals are exposed to the elements and can die of hypothermia. Accidental ingestion can also poison marine organisms. Factories are another significant source of oil pollution. Although factories can treat effluents or send them to sewage treatment plants, many instead discharge them directly into nearby bodies of water. Furthermore, when factories burn fossil fuels, they emit volatile oils into the atmosphere, which can then pollute the water. Together, industrial effluents and atmospheric oils account for 45 percent of marine oil pollution – almost five times more than the oil lost through tanker incidents (“Oil Pollution of Marine Habitats”). Point source pollution also occurs in concentrated animal feeding operations. Without proper treatment, waste from these factory farms can devastate the ocean. For instance, in 1995, a factory farm spilled 25 million gallons of manure into the New River in North Carolina, killing about ten million fish (Garling). Eventually, the excreted antibiotics and hormones from similar spills can cause nutrient pollution in our waterways. Therefore, new infrastructure must be developed to prevent point source pollution to the best of our ability.
Although the public is largely familiar with chemical and plastic pollution, people tend to be less aware of underwater noise pollution. Because water is less compressible than air, the acoustical energy and particle motion of sound is more pronounced in water. In fact, “In large bodies of water, sound waves can carry undiminished for miles” (“Marine Pollution”). There are two general categories of noise pollution: continuous and acute. Continuous noise contains steady amounts of acoustical energy at low frequencies, usually from ships and propellers. In contrast, acute noise is more intense and abrupt like seismic exploration, where air gun explosions are used to collect underwater oil and gas. According to marine scientist Christopher Clark, these explosions are powerful enough that, “The sound is six or seven orders of magnitude louder than the loudest ship sounds. … When someone is surveying off northern Brazil, I can hear the explosion on a small piece of instrumentation that I deploy 60 miles off the coast of Virginia” (Schiffman). Unfortunately, these sounds can disrupt the migration, communication, hunting, and reproduction patterns of whales, dolphins, and other marine animals who communicate and orient themselves through sound. For example, between 2001 and 2003, masses of squids and whales began stranding themselves on beaches during anthropogenic sonar exercises in Spain. Furthermore, many whale feeding grounds and migratory routes occur along shallow coastlines. If the females cannot hear the males over the din of noise pollution, they lose opportunities to breed, and if whales cannot communicate to one another the locations of food patches, they lose opportunities to feed. Overall, about 55 marine species have been found to respond negatively to sound exposure (Singla). Unfortunately, noise pollution is only increasing as technology advances. In fact, the ocean is about ten times louder today than it was 50 years ago (“What Is Ocean Noise Pollution?”). Therefore, new exploration techniques and ship designs are needed to protect the natural behavioral patterns of marine wildlife.
Although the damage is unfortunate, the situation is not entirely bleak. Past instances of diligent effort and cooperation have caused miraculous benefits to our seas. For example, scientists are developing new strategies for oil spill prevention and recovery. These improvements incorporate advanced technologies and materials like backup safety systems, computers, electromagnetic instruments, and ultrasonic devices that can detect and report vulnerabilities. In addition, tanker designs are incorporating double hulls with leak prevention and corrosion-resistant materials as extra security. Furthermore, Specific Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure Plans (SPCC) required by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) help ensure safe operation of equipment, with regular testing and inspection. In case a spill occurs, 16 federal agencies oversee spill-related issues on an EPA-led National Response System throughout the US (“Oil Spill Response Planning”). Their priorities are to prevent the spill from reaching the shore, to reduce its impact on marine life, and to accelerate the degradation of unrecovered oil. The most common strategies are manual recovery and physical barriers, where workers use rakes and shovels to skim off oil and debris. Berms and booms are also built to temporarily contain the flow of oil on land and water, respectively. In addition, numerous chemical strategies are used in response to a spill. For example, because oil is partially biodegradable, fertilizers and bacteria can be used to break down the oil through a process called bioremediation. Another common technique is in-situ burning, where oil is burned off the surface of the water. After the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, controlled burns were used to remove over 220,000 barrels of oil from the ocean (Worcester Polytechnic Institute). Unfortunately, in-situ burning is difficult to sustain and can pollute the air. However, in March 2017, scientists at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute successfully tested a new technology called the Flame Refluxer, which burned five times more oil per minute with lower levels of air pollutants. Other effective tools include dispersants, which are detergents that break oil into small droplets. After Deepwater Horizon, over 1.4 million gallons of chemical dispersants were released (“Gulf Oil Spill”). However, some studies have shown that the resulting particles can still harm wildlife by entering the food chain. Therefore, a group of engineers funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative is studying more efficient and risk-free dispersants. For instance, they have experimented with using carbon particles and clay tubes that are 20 nanometers in diameter to facilitate the dilution of oil and deliver dispersants over longer periods of time (“Building a Better Dispersant”). With prevention strategies like the SPCC and innovative response techniques like the Flame Refluxer, oil spills will hopefully become a far less common and harmful issue in the future.
In addition, many people are uniting in a movement against plastic pollution. For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a team of scientists and lawyers who are trying to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean by calling on single-use plastic producers to take more responsibility for their products and emphasizing economic incentives for the industry to use less plastic packaging. For instance, one of their studies found that recycling 75% of the US’s waste could generate 1.1 million jobs by 2030. Another study found that California spends about $428 million per year to clean plastic pollution (“Stop Plastic Pollution”). As this information gains attention, more companies will be able to make informed decisions about the waste they produce. In fact, in 2013, a company named Steelys Drinkware partnered with the Plastic Pollution Coalition to start a movement that replaces single-use plastic cups and bottles with reusable steel cups. By 2017, the program had diverted two million plastic cups and bottles from landfills (“Refill Revolution”). A similar revolution is spreading worldwide against plastic bags. For example, after implementing a small fee per bag, the UK and Ireland have seen an 80% reduction in paper and plastic bag use. Similarly, in Washington DC, the number of plastic bags found in the Anacostia River reduced by 70% after the adoption of a five-cent bag fee in 2009 (“For the Earth”). Recently, California instituted the first statewide ban on plastic bags in the US, and even countries in Africa have been announcing bans to improve the environment. The success of these policies can in part be attributed to organizations like Heal the Bay, which educate the public to make informed decisions when voting for propositions. With the continued cooperation of these organizations with commercial businesses, the level of plastic pollution will hopefully decrease drastically in the near future.
Measures are also being taken to prevent nutrient pollution that occurs through runoff. When they are not properly managed, fertilizers and manure are the main sources of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Therefore, farms need to follow specific regulations for applying fertilizers in the proper amount at the right time of year. Furthermore, runoff can be reduced as a whole through a variety of green infrastructure. For example, cover crops and buffers like trees and shrubs can absorb and filter nutrients out of stormwater before it reaches our waterways. In fact, simulations conducted by the US Forest Service found that in the Lower Yazoo River Watershed, two times more forested land area would yield half the amount of runoff sediment (“Study Shows Reforestation”). Other examples of green infrastructure include drainage control systems on roads. For instance, after five drains were built on unpaved roads in St. John, the amount of runoff sediment decreased by 70% (Ramos-Scharron). Runoff can also be prevented by collecting rainwater from rooftop downspouts rather than letting it flow into storm sewers. In fact, between 1933 and 2011, the Downspout Disconnection Program in Portland, Oregon, disconnected over 56,000 downspouts from the sewer system, removing over 1.3 billion gallons of stormwater yearly (“Downspout Disconnection Program”). Hopefully, as more innovative infrastructure is implemented, runoff and nutrient pollution will become an issue of the past.
Finally, as noise pollution gains recognition, new advances are being made to reduce its impact. For example, in 2010, NOAA began to document marine anthropogenic noises on a worldwide sound map. Its goal was to better understand and predict the impact of these noises on marine wildlife. According to Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst at the NRDC, “The maps are enabling scientists, regulators, and the public to visualize the problem. Once you see the pictures, the serious risk that ocean noise poses to the very fabric of marine life becomes impossible to ignore” (Broad). NOAA is also encouraging companies to follow voluntary guidelines that quiet commercial ships, like designing more efficient propellers and engines that are separated from the hull. Furthermore, a new technology called Vibroseis uses sonar sweeps that are much quieter than seismic guns but are still effective for oil and gas exploration. In fact, typical airguns waste 30% of their emitted sound energy through frequencies that are over 120 Hz, but Vibroseis barely uses energy exceeding 100 Hz (Weilgart). Hopefully, as legislation and technology advances, marine life will become far less susceptible to noise pollution.
The ocean remains one of the most indispensable, vast, and mysterious places on Earth. The air we breathe, the water we drink, and the products we use daily would not be possible without it. Unfortunately, during recent decades, marine life has been threatened by surplus human activity. From nonpoint source like plastics and nutrients to point source like spills and factory farms, the oceans have suffered dearly at the hands of mankind. Fortunately, as awareness spreads, a movement is rising to protect our waterways and the life they contain. By making greener household decisions, cleaning litter, supporting organizations that advocate for marine life, and spreading awareness, even you can play a role in this movement; a little action goes a long way. With diligent cooperation and effort, perhaps one day the ocean can view mankind not as monsters but as heroes.
Broad, William. “A Rising Tide of Noise Is Now Easy to Sea.” New York Times , 10 Dec. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/12/11/science/project-seeks-to-map-and-reduce-ocean-noise-pollution.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“Building a Better Dispersant.” Smithsonian, ocean.si.edu/ocean-news/building-better-dispersant. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“The Deepwater Horizon’s Impact on Gulf Wildlife and Habitats.” National Wildlife Federation, www.nwf.org/What-We-Do/Protect-Habitat/Gulf-Restoration/Oil-Spill.aspx. Accessed 11 June 2017.
“Downspout Disconnection Program.” The City of Portland Oregon, www.portlandoregon.gov/bes/54651. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“For the Earth: Let’s Stop Plastic Pollution Now.” Plastic Pollution Coalition , 21 Apr. 2017, www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2017/4/21/for-the-earth-lets-stop-plastic-pollutionnow. Accessed 16 June 2017.
Garling, Brett. “What’s the Role of Factory Farming in Ocean Degradation?” Mission Blue , 12 Feb. 2015, www.mission-blue.org/2015/02/whats-the-role-of-mass-animal-agriculture-in-ocean-degradation/. Accessed 11 June 2017.
“Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/. Accessed 11
“Gulf Oil Spill.” Smithsonian , ocean.si.edu/gulf-oil-spill. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“Marine Pollution.” National Geographic, ocean.nationalgeographic.com/ocean/explore/pristine-seas/critical-issues-marine-pollution/. Accessed 13 June 2017.
“Ocean Pollution.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, www.noaa.gov/resource-collections/ocean-pollution. Accessed 11 June 2017.
“Oil Pollution of Marine Habitats.” World Ocean Review, worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-1/pollution/oil/. Accessed 11 June 2017.
“Oil Spill Response Planning.” Oil Spill Prevention, www.oilspillprevention.org/oil-spill-preparedness/oil-spill-response-planning. Accessed 15 June 2017.
“Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2016.” International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, Feb. 2017, www.itopf.com/knowledge-resources/data-statistics/statistics/. Accessed 11 June 2017.
“Pharmaceuticals Found in Fish Across US.” NBC News , 25 Mar. 2009, www.nbcnews.com/id/29877241/ns/health-health_care/t/pharmaceuticals-found-fish-across-us/#.WTwDrRgrLrd. Accessed 10 June 2017.
“Point Source.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/kits/pollution/03pointsource.html. Accessed 10 June 2017.
Ramos-Scharron, C.E. “Effectiveness of Drainage Improvements in Reducing Sediment Production Rates from an Unpaved Road.” Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 2012, www.jswconline.org/content/67/2/87.refs. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“Refill Revolution at Bonnaroo Diverts 2 Million Plastic Cups and Water Bottles from Landfill.” Plastic Pollution Coalition , 12 June 2017,
www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org/pft/2017/6/12/refill-revolution-at-bonnaroo-diverts-2-mil-plastic-cup-and-water-bottles-from-landfill. Accessed 16 June 2017.
Schiffman, Richard. “How Ocean Noise Pollution Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life.” Yale , 31 Mar. 2016, e360.yale.edu/features/how_ocean_noise_pollution_wreaks_havoc_on_marine_life. Accessed 13 June 2017.
Singla, Smita. “Effects of Noise Pollution from Ships on Marine Life.” Marine Insight , 21 July 2016, www.marineinsight.com/environment/effects-of-noise-pollution-from-ships-on-marine-life/. Accessed 13 June 2017.
“Stop Plastic Pollution.” National Resources Defense Council , www.nrdc.org/issues/stop-plastic-pollution. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“Study Shows Reforestation Along Rivers and Streams in Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley Reduces Sediment Runoff.” US Department of Agriculture , 2 Dec. 2013, www.srs.fs.usda.gov/news/552. Accessed 16 June 2017.
Weilgart, Lindy. “Alternative Quieting Technology to Seismic Airguns for Oil and Gas Exploration and Geophysical Research.” United Nations , 2016. Accessed 16 June 2017.
“What Is Ocean Noise Pollution?” Ocean Conservation Research , ocr.org/learn/human-noise/. Accessed 13 June 2017.
Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “Experts Successfully Test a Novel Oil Spill Cleanup Technology.” Science Daily , 24 Mar. 2017, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170324104942.htm. Accessed 16 June 2017.
In freshman year, I was introduced to the story of Salva Dut, a refugee from the Sudanese Civil War, via the novel A Long Walk to Water. After relocating to the United States, he founded a nonprofit organization called Water for South Sudan, which drills wells for villages in South Sudan. Deeply inspired, my friends and I started a club called Freshmen for Fresh Water to fund a well for the organization. By the end of the year, we raised over $7,000. This experience opened my eyes to the importance of water – something I’d taken for granted throughout most of my life. In my submission to the Bow Seat Ocean Awareness Contest, I hope to provide readers with a similarly illuminating experience. Using abundant data from a wide range of sources, I highlighted the impact of numerous types of ocean pollution and outlined current developing solutions. I hope that this piece will inspire people to take action and preserve our oceans.