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Perfectly placed to tackle ocean debris

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Clean-up efforts: Anne Hyde, executive director at Keep Bermuda Beautiful (Photograph By Nadia Hall)

Bermuda has a distinct advantage over other nations when studying ocean pollution, according to researchers.

More and more debris from North and South America, the Caribbean and even Africa, is washing up on the island’s shores, Anne Hyde, executive director of Keep Bermuda Beautiful, told The Royal Gazette .

As a founding member of the Bermuda Marine Debris Taskforce — a partnership between local environmental and research organisations — Ms Hyde’s team has been examining plastics washing ashore on six different beaches and will publish a report this year.

“We in Bermuda are fortunate to be able to share information with the leaders in global plastic marine pollution research,” Ms Hyde said.

“We are working locally and internationally to share information to come up with solutions to this problem.”

Robbie Smith, curator of the Natural History Museum and a member of the Taskforce, has been at the forefront of environmental research on the island for more than three decades after he and Anthony Knap, former director of Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences, published a paper in 1985 looking at the amount of tar on the island’s beaches.

“That study and earlier ones really showed that Bermuda, being out here in the middle of the ocean, is a pretty good place to measure what is floating by,” he said.

“It was a relatively easy problem to solve because we knew where the oil was coming from,” added Dr Smith, citing poor tanker operations.

“Today the problem is that plastic comes from absolutely every coastline and river around the Atlantic.”

Reacting to a new report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which shows that by 2050 the world’s oceans will contain more plastic than fish when measured by weight, Dr Smith said: “There are some calculations that are reasonably robust. Some make broader assumptions that may or may not be accurate.

“But the message is that we need to greatly reduce the influx of plastic to our oceans or we may well get to the point that the impact of plastic on fish, combined with our unsustainable fishing practices, may allow this prediction to come true.

“Our great concern is the more we look into the oceans for this plastic debris we keep finding a lot of it.”

He said Bermuda had remained an important focal point for research.

The BMDT is affiliated with the SEA Education Association, an undergraduate research programme conducting a long-term study of how much plastic is in the ocean around Bermuda. They published results in 2010 that showed that there are 50,000 to 70,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometre on the surface of the Sargasso Sea, on average.

“That’s about a thousand pieces of plastic in a football field,” Dr Smith said. “Most are so small, less than five millimetres in size, that you wouldn’t even notice, but if you’re an animal hunting in that area, you take a bite or swallow a piece then another bite then they add up to a cumulative impact that’s the issue of the threat.”

Data shows that Bermuda is in a high plastic density area, which motivated the group to start measuring it on the beaches.

“It adds to stories of other scientists that have been here very recently and this is just another important piece of the puzzle,” said Dr Smith.

Ms Hyde said: “We suffer here because of our geographical location on the edge of the North Atlantic gyre, which is one of five circular ocean systems around the world, and because of our climate and the fact that we get gales and hurricanes. That pushes the debris up on to our beaches, so that we see more evidence than perhaps other locations.”

Speaking at Hamilton Rotary Club’s weekly lunch meeting on Tuesday, she gave an overview of KBB’s clean-up programmes and explained the fundamental difficulties in removing plastic from the beaches.

“There’s different ways to rake and sieve, but it’s pervasive,” she told Rotarians.

“The microbes in nature can’t eat plastic the way they can an apple core or break down a tin can. Plastics don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade.

“The wave action of being in the ocean and the sunlight makes them brittle and that’s when they break down into the small pieces.

“Trying to stop it at the source before it reaches the river, before it reaches the ocean, before it reaches Bermuda, that is what we really want to achieve. It’s a global problem.”

She said the SEA Change group were one of four international expeditions to visit the island last year, investigating high concentrations of plastic waste.

The Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute’s current exhibition, Living with the Ocean , also addresses this issue.

“Ninety per cent of the trash in the ocean is plastic and 54 per cent of that floats beneath the surface,” Crystal Schultz of the BUEI said.

“For every six pounds of plastic in the ocean, there is only one pound of plankton.

“From plastic pellets that look like fish eggs and micro beads, and plastic bags that look like jellyfish, marine life consumes them and either feel full and starve, get tangled up in it or choked. Plastic also bioaccumulates toxins which are passed up the food chain.

“The plastic problem is one of the worst environmental disasters of all times and it looks like it will be with us indefinitely.”

Global problem: microbeands and little pieces of plastic such as these are polluting the world’s oceans and lakes
<p>Plastic found in turtles’ guts</p>

Several turtles with large quantities of plastic in their gut have been collected by the research team at the Aquarium, according to Robbie Smith.

He said his team were planning to summarise this data to compare with the previous study on plastic stranding on local beaches.

Dr Smith, curator for the Natural History Museum at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, explained how plastic accumulates in the Sargasso Sea, mixing with the Sargassum weed — a breeding ground for juvenile turtles.

“The result is that juvenile turtles and fishes can consume plastic particles by mistake,” he said.

“What we’ve come to recognise is that these plastics have been sitting out there for perhaps decades, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

“The issue then becomes an important ecological question.

“There are many animals out there that want to feed on particles and they ingest plastic pieces in error. With more and more plastic in the ocean there will be a greater impact.

“When an animal eats enough of that stuff, it will clog them and several turtles that have been stranded in Bermuda and collected by the team at the Aquarium over the past decade or two, were shown to have had large quantities of plastic in their guts.

“It is clear that plastic is a real threat to sea turtles,” he said, adding: “I think that’s going to be very valuable to see whether the number of turtles that have been affected by plastic has increased recently.

“We do not have good measure on how many other types of marine animals are directly affected but we can be sure that many are.”