Stewardship Monday: Don’t trash the ocean!

For this week on Stewardship Monday, we go to Michael Esgro at the Institute for Applied Marine Ecology (IfAME). IfAME has sent footage from their research expeditions to MSI to share with our students as they explore the deep.

Michael Esgro with some marine debris

Michael Esgro with some marine debris

Question: What is the weirdest piece of trash you’ve seen in the ocean?

Answer:  “As a marine scientist, I get to spend a lot of time in the ocean. My job is to collect data and imagery underwater—either by scuba diving or by using robots equipped with cameras, which are called ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). Many of the marine ecosystems I study are beautiful places teeming with fish, sharks, marine mammals, and invertebrates. Unfortunately, however, I also see a lot of trash.

Old fishing gear, discarded boat equipment, and plastic containers are the most common types of debris that I see in the ocean. Occasionally, however, I’ll see something really weird, like a pair of pants that I once found while diving (“How did these jeans end up 50 feet deep?”, I remember wondering), or a giant boat propeller that had turned into a home for algae and anemones. By far the weirdest piece of trash that I’ve found, though, was a jet engine! The engine was sitting on the seafloor at about 450 feet, just off the coast of Laguna Beach. The IfAME team and I did some research and discovered that it had come from a plane that crashed in the area over 40 years ago.

Concerned by the amount of trash we were finding in the water, some colleagues at IfAME and I recently conducted a study in which we looked for debris in thousands of photographs of the seafloor. These photos had been taken over the course of about five years, by both divers and ROVs, as part of a wide variety of scientific projects all along the California coast. We found that the distribution of marine debris transcended all sites (Point Arena to La Jolla), depths (15-450 m), and habitats surveyed. Debris occurred more frequently in areas of high human use, such as busy beaches and harbors. Sadly, we found just as much trash in marine protected areas as in unprotected sites.

Any piece of trash that finds its way to the ocean has the potential to be harmful to marine animals. Fish and sharks can easily get entangled in abandoned fishing nets. Marine mammals and sea turtles can be poisoned if they ingest plastic. To protect our oceans and their residents from pollution, always throw your trash into the proper receptacles, and try to minimize your consumption of plastic. I hope that someday we will all be able to enjoy an ocean free of trash!”

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