The islands of the British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic, including St. Helena, East Falkland, and Ascension Island, are so tiny and remote that most people don’t even realize they exist. For centuries, that kept them relative clean and pristine, but in recent decades discarded straws, fishing nets, and millions of bits of degraded plastic have begun washing up on their shores. Now, reports Marlene Cimons at Nexus Media, that pollution is getting even worse. A new study in the journal Current Biology shows that plastic trash on the beaches and in the ocean has increased tenfold in the just the last decade and a hundredfold over the last three decades.
During four research cruises between 2013 and 2018, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and nine other organizations aboard the RMS James Clark Ross sought to quantify the plastic around the islands. The crew took samples of marine debris from the water’s surface, the water column, the seabed and the beaches. They also investigated plastic ingestion in 2,243 animals comprised of 26 different species ranging across the marine food web from plankton to apex predators, like seabirds; all were found to consume plastic at high rates.
What they found was plastic, and lots of it. About 90 percent of all the contaminants they analyzed were made of plastic, which abundant in the ocean, on the beach and inside the animals.
“Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine,” lead author David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey says in a statement. “Plastic waste has increased a hundredfold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds.”
According to the study, beaches on the remote islands were particularly hard hit and the level of junk on them now rivals the polluted beaches in the industrialized North Atlantic. On East Falkland and St. Helena, 300 bits of trash per square meter were recorded, which is ten times more than the previous decade. While it's hard to say where most of the plastic bits come from, the degree of UV damage suggests that about 70 percent of the plastic floated to the islands from other sources.
The plastic isn’t just unsightly. Nexus’s Cimons reports that as larger plastic pieces, like bottles and bags, break down in the ocean they release chemical pollutants and greenhouse gases. The bits of microplastics produced are ingested by marine life and seabirds, which can poison them or cause intestinal blockages. Discarded plastic fishing nets can continue to entangle animals. And floating plastic can be a vector for spreading invasive plants, animals and diseases to islands and regions where they wash up. Creatures as large as iguanas have been observed floating on plastic trash in the ocean.
“Lots of things can settle on it, native and non-native, and anything that settles anywhere can travel anywhere – because as we know plastics have been picked up that have travelled the world ocean, they can go anywhere,” Barnes tells Josh Gabbatiss at The Independent. “I myself have found non-natives on plastic.”
The fact that these remote outposts are now awash in plastic is a wake up call that the problem has gotten out of hand. “These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet’s health,” co-author Andy Schofield, a biologist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, says in the statement. “It is heartbreaking watching Albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere. This is a very big wake up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health.”
The study does not have any specific suggestions for tackling the problem, but Barnes tells Nexus’s Cimons that society needs to understand the true scale of the problem before governments and industry can make efforts to clean up the mess. Individuals can make a difference by paying attention to the packaging used on the products they buy and by recycling when they can.
“The longer and later we leave the problem of plastics, the more difficult and expensive it will be to deal with. We need to do something quickly, as plastics at sea can spread some quite nasty toxic chemicals, reduce the ability of environments to sustain our food, and become part of the food we want to eat,” he says. “Clearly we would not ignore poison being spread on our vegetables or fed to livestock on farms, yet that is what’s happening in our seas.”
There are some efforts beginning to deal with the plastic. Over the summer, five of the world’s most industrialized nations (not including the U.S.) agreed to create an ocean plastics charter to address the growing problem. And just last month, sea trials began on a controversial “artificial shoreline” designed to collect plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean.