Today I was asked a question that I continue to ponder. Someone was looking for a speaker to explain to a class why pollution is a problem in the ocean environment.
At first it seemed like this was so obvious that it hardly needs discussing, but as I thought about it more and more, it became clear that there are a number of issues that could be considered here. Pollution is a big topic and has many ugly heads. Naming just some of them, we could talk about trash that makes its way into the ocean (I have discussed marine debris a lot in this column), or we could talk about large accidental oil spills.
We could also consider small amounts of oil and other chemicals used on and around boats that could be leaking or get discarded into the water. More oil and fuels reach the water through the daily runoff from roads around the country than all the large spills taken together.
Then, there are airborn pollutants that are absorbed into the ocean through gas exchange at the surface. Also, there is organic pollution, which could come from untreated sewage or from the dumping of dead animals or animal parts.
The ocean is vast. Three quarters of the surface of the planet is covered by water. In some places, the ocean is deeper than the highest mountains on land are high. So why not just dump whatever we would like to get out of our sight into the depth of the ocean?
The attitude behind this approach is one of “out of sight, out of mind” and that is where part of the problem lies. If I throw something into the ocean, it has not suddenly disappeared because I don’t see it anymore. To think it has is like the child that thinks I can’t see him when he covers his eyes!
In Germany, at the end of World War II, leftover ammunition including many barrels of mustard gas were dumped into the Baltic Sea. After many years in the saltwater environment, the barrels rusted through and began to leak. They became an environmental hazard to people swimming in the vacation resorts along the coast, not to mention the marine life. Many years later the government spent millions cleaning up this mess.
So why is it not allowed to dump just a small amount of oil or fuel into the water? Considering the amount of seawater compared to a can of old engine oil, one could think that the pollution should hardly register. As the saying goes: “The solution to pollution is dilution,” right?
Not so. In fact, a very small amount of oil can contaminate a very large body of water. Oil is a mixture of many different chemicals, all containing carbon and hydrogen and several other elements. These are arranged into molecules in many different ways. The carbon binds with other carbons into chains or rings. Chains can be short or long and rings can consist of just five or six carbon atoms or form multirings with more and more atoms.
Smaller molecules are more volatile, meaning they often get airborn. These are the ones that you can smell when oil is spilled and they are also the ones that make people lightheaded and nauseous from breathing them. Larger molecules are heavier and stay in the environment longer.
The multiring structures are very persistent. They are also known DNA disruptors. Hatchlings from eggs that are incubated near a pool of these persistent polyaromatic hydrocarbons have an increased percentage of birth defects. Just ask your local fisherman if it matters if fewer fish hatchlings are able to survive to adulthood.
Most people have an easier time understanding why pollution of the water with a toxic substance like oil is prohibited. It may be more difficult to understand what could possibly be wrong about dumping fish waste into the ocean. I think there is an extensive discussion about the value of life and the right to discard animals without any other reason or purpose than that they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that is not the discussion I want to get into right now.
A long time ago I was offered a lucrative one-day job helping a diver who was to do repairs on the outflow of a fish cannery that ground the fish guts and then pumped them out into the ocean. From the outflow of the pipe, all around it and for quite some ways downcurrent, the ocean floor was covered in ground-up fish gunk.
I would have expected a lot of marine creatures to feast on this set table, but I saw none. Instead, it was obvious that around the pile there was a layer of black, smelling of rotten eggs. The rotten egg smell is a sure indication of an anaerobic or oxygen-free zone. Animals can not live in these conditions and avoid them. Far from adding a food source, the output of that cannery was creating a local dead zone in the ocean. This may look different if there is a strong current that does not allow the gunk to pile up or even if the size of the fish guts is different.
It would take a lot more time and research to do justice to the question why we should not dump trash, oil, chemicals, organic wastes and other pollutants into the ocean. However, if you think of the ocean as the home of billions of amazing creatures, the womb of evolution, the source of some of our best food, the producer of over half the word’s oxygen and the source of our weather and climate, I sure hope that you can find reason why people should treat it with respect.
Polluting is being disrespectful to the environment in which we live. It is like soiling ones own bed. I have little love for people who will show such disrespect to the amazing nature of the ocean that supports us.