John F. Kennedy once said, “We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came.”
The Pacific Northwest is surrounded by vast waters and transient marine life, but when it comes to the sea, you get what you give, said Lyda Harris who has a Ph.D. in marine ecology.
While Harris was earning her Ph.D. from the University of Washington she also spent time researching at Friday Harbor Labs. During her research, she was constantly reminded of the tie between the health of the ocean and the health of humans.
Much of her research has concentrated on marine microplastics in the Salish Sea. Harris said that people consume microplastics daily whether it be in the food we eat or the water we drink. While she noted it is not one person’s fault and it is such a large-scale issue that is hard to control, it is important to understand how it happens.
The main culprit, she said, is clothing, of which many affordable options are made up of microplastic polyblends.
“It is less likely now to come across clothing that is 100% cotton or 100% wool,” Harris said. “When you wash your clothing, the washing machine does a really good job of removing dirt, and part of that process is spinning the clothing pretty aggressively. So, in that spinning, it also causes some friction and releases some microfibers that go into wastewater treatment and eventually into our water waste.”
Even wearing the clothing in day-to-day life can cause enough friction to cause microplastics to shed into the air, she said.
Not all plastic is created equal. Some versions are hardier, such as plastic piping used for plumbing purposes, Harris said, making them less likely to end up in the water or atmosphere.
When these plastics end up in the water, they will also end up ingested by multitudes of marine life, she said, many of which we might end up eating.
To further illustrate the breadth of travel of microplastics, according to the Guardian, “Microplastic particles have been revealed in the placentas of unborn babies for the first time, which the researchers said was ‘a matter of great concern.’ The health impact of microplastics on the body is as yet unknown. But the scientists said they could carry chemicals that could cause long-term damage or upset the fetus’s developing immune system. The particles are likely to have been consumed or breathed in by the mothers.”
Harris said that while this is a serious issue to be aware of, it is hard for individuals to control. When it comes to maintaining the health of the ocean, there are smaller things that people can do to keep the ocean, its marine life, and people healthy.
First off is speed.
“It might seem like a silly thing to worry about if you’re boating along and don’t see anything that would be in your way,” she said. “But as you go faster, the engines create more noise and that noise is heard throughout the water. That messes up a lot of communication for marine animals. That is part of the reason why there are laws in place as to how close you can get to orcas.”
Another element is securing all of your belongings on the boat. Twenty percent of global marine waste is derelict fishing gear, she said. This includes things that are purposely thrown into the water and things that are accidentally lost. Making sure belongings on the boat are secured is very important, she said.
Fishing all day can make for a hungry stomach, but Harris recommends staying away from bringing store-bought meals in single-use plastic. Instead, she suggests preparing a meal as you would at home, such as a sandwich, and bringing it with you. “It is so easy for single-use plastic to fly off a boat,” she said, leading to more garbage in the water.
Keeping up on proper boat maintenance is not only good for the boat and boat owner but the ocean as well. If a boat acquires barnacle or mussel growth, even a little bit can create lag for the boat, which can burn more fuel, Harris said. Paint chipping is another issue.
“Most boats are painted with a toxic plastic coating. If you don’t maintain your boat, that can flake off into the water,” she said and noted that sparkly boat paint is the worst to have flaked off.
Proper disposal of a boat’s holding tank is also crucial to maintaining a clean ocean, Harris said. Waste dumping in the ocean is illegal, but it still happens. There are pump-out stations at marinas to avoid this. Dumping human waste into the water releases a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus into the water creating a toxic algae bloom. This can lead to toxic shellfish.
“You want to take your boat out and you want to go out and get fish, that’s awesome. But, keep in mind your actions affect the ecosystem and they affect the health of the water where the fish you are eating live,” she said. Harris pointed out that smaller fish are especially susceptible to ingesting any toxins in the water. The larger fish are likely to consume those smaller fish. She continued to say, “You or your friends or anyone else does anything that could make that water unhealthy, that could reduce the number of fish in the area you are fishing or it could create unhealthy fish and no one wants to eat a sick fish.”
With all of this in mind, Harris hopes that all boaters can enjoy the waters while respecting the symbiosis between humans and the ocean.