A Parable about Plastics

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

What we are beginning to understand about the impact that plastics have on marine life (and, by extension, all life) is a parable for how humans impact the oceans in other ways. Recent research that looks beyond the accumulation of debris and its interaction with marine life shows that the effects of plastic pollution are myriad, complex, and difficult to address.

For decades those who cared about oceans and the problem of marine pollution were focused on marine debris: the gut-wrenching images of seabirds tangled in six-pack holders, sea turtles ensnared in plasticized lines, or monofilament ghost nets doing their ghoulish and wasteful murder in the depths. Campaigns to clean up beaches were a popular draw for the public around the world and a good hook for conservation organizations wanting to attract donor support. But as motivating as the images were and as popular as the beach clean-ups have become, this interest seems ephemeral – there has been little serious pressure on manufacturers to limit or improve plastic packaging or on the public to limit our own consumption of plastic products. And then it turned out that – lo and behold – the plastic problem we saw and occasionally countered with our beach clean-ups and donations to animal rehabilitation programs was really only the tip of the iceberg. It is the smaller stuff that we can't see – the polypropylene pellets and the microplastics – that are really mucking things up. Even getting into our food chain as it turns out – our man made pollution coming back to haunt us….

As we’ve developed metrics to understand the nature and the scope of the marine plastics pollution problem, we are shocked by the sheer scale of the threat. The growing accumulations of plastic out in the ocean gyres have been in the news every year for the past decade, and the recent estimate of the tonnage of plastic floating about in various forms in the world ocean has exceeded any projection made on the basis of carefully quantified beach debris collected during clean-ups. Empirical studies based on sampling and extrapolation have supported the development of sophisticated models that predict not only how much plastic is likely entering the coastal waters but also its fate vis a vis eventual location and state. And while the plastic-bag-clogging-the-intestine-of-a-sea-turtle image is alarming and makes people spring into action, improved toxicology studies are showing that the impacts plastics are likely having on the larger food web – including us – is the major, and lasting, problem.

We have to understand problems and address their root causes

The plastics pollution story is a parable about all the ways we impact our oceans and undermine the health of the planet and ourselves. The moral at the end of this parable is this – if we want to successfully solve the problem, we have to understand it and address the root cause. The same goes for nutrient pollution and eutrophication: the issue we see (algal blooms and fish kills) is really the tip of that iceberg. What really matters are the ecosystem imbalances that result from overfertilization. And the source of all those nutrients is rarely just the outmoded sewer system or combined storm drain – it’s the host of land-based sources pooled together. Ditto with disappearing wetlands: we can point the finger at coastal land conversion and cutting of mangroves for fuelwood, but the real problem may be in disrupted hydrological flows that nourish those wetlands in the first place. And the widespread issue of reduction in fish stocks – yes, the main driver may be commercial fishing, but the loss of nursery habitats and the displacement of fishers out of protected areas may be compounding the problem. For each of these issues, the solution requires a spate of interventions, made in the holistic manner that defines real ecosystem-based management.

Let’s not kid ourselves. We love our beach clean-ups and our beautiful marine parks. We love eating MSC-certified seafood and contributing to groups that empower local communities to manage their own marine resources well. But these are all band-aids. If we really want to deal with the toxins in the environment, habitat degradation, and biodiversity loss, we must commit to understanding the problem and making sacrifices so that our impact on this wounded planet is a little bit less every day.


Tundi, sorry but it is VERY hard to swallow your claim that the "displacement of fishers out of protected areas" is a cause of the reduction of fish stocks... all available science proves beyond any doubt that no-take MPAs contribute to increases in biomass and help improve fisheries around their perimeter! It is about time that we challenge the notion that no-take MPAs are a "problem"; they are an overall solution for everyone, helping to balance the uses of marine biodiversity between extractive (too often supported, recognized and given a voice) and NON-EXTRACTIVE (generally overlooked, ignored or simply steamrolled by fishing lobbies) uses/users. 

We need to stop pretending artisanal fisheries are not a problem. They are a BIG part of the overfishing equation, but political correctness prevents most of us - community of practice, scientists, activists - from saying it out loud and, most importantly, addressing the problem. We must do better than this, if not for other reasons out of respect for the artisanal fishing communities to which much lip service is paid but not enough management is put in place to help their resource base recover, including establishing and enforcing no-take areas and providing training for the to convert to other, non-extractive uses. 

Dear Jose,

I appreciate your taking the time to read the post and reply. However, I don't think I implied that MPAs don't work well to conserve habitat and increase biomass, or that closed areas are not an important tool in the fisheries management toolkit, able to increase productivity by spillover in some cases.  If my post read like that, that certainly wasn't my intention. But designating closed areas with a blind eye to patterns of exploitation and impact beyond the MPAs’ borders is myopic and dangerous. 

The reality is that when fishing exists and is then restricted by a no-take reserve, effort is generally displaced to some nearby place – sometimes without negative impact, sometimes with serious negative impact on vulnerable and ecologically important areas that are off the MPA planners’ radar. That is why I, along with many other MPA advocates, suggest that embedding strict protections in broader marine spatial planning that effectively regulates all our activities in the wider, interconnected set of ecosystems, is preferable to dealing with only one small place at a time. And to look at the issue of loss of biodiversity and fish productivity only through the lens of fisheries exploitation is to overlook many other confounding factors, such as the loss of fish nursery and other coastal habitat, which the Millennium Assessment and other studies have identified as the single biggest driver of ecosystem services loss worldwide.

As for your argument against artisanal fishers, you and I are both lucky that we are able to readily purchase seafood (if we choose to eat it), and that we have the economic means to even choose seafood at a cost premium that is certified as sustainable. For those who don't have that luxury, and who live on small islands or remote coasts with no alternative food sources and few livelihood opportunities, fishing is a necessity. I am not saying that we shouldn’t work hard to quantify the negative impacts of artisanal fishing, because like recreational fishing this adds to the pressures and must be addressed as part of a holistic approach to managing our collective impacts on oceans. But closing areas to artisanal fishers without providing them the means to feed their families or earn a living is not only inhumane, it is bound to fail.



Tundi, many thanks indeed for your elaboration on the issue. Now I understand your point much better.

My issue with artisanal fishing is that we must stop pretending they don´t have an impact and are sustainable by ideological diktat, therefore permitted to keep going despite evident impacts, even inside MPAs where at the very least efforts should be made to ensure captures are sustainable. We are failing these very communities by simply allowing them to continue fishing until the resouyrces are exhausted, at least in countries like my homeland Brazil. Planning without enforcement of necessary measures to ensure sustainable catches will take us - and worse, them - nowhere and that´s my main point. Regards!

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