How Plastic Cleanup Threatens the Ocean’s Living Islands
The Ocean Cleanup project, founded with the vision of clearing the world’s oceans of plastic, has designed a 600-meter-long barrier with a three-meter-deep net, ostensibly to collect plastic passively as the currents push water through the net in the open ocean. When she learned of the plan, Rebecca Helm wrote recently on TheAtlantic.com, “I thought immediately of the neuston.”
The neuston, an ecosystem living at the ocean’s surface, exists in the same spots as plastic. “Cleaning up 90 percent of the plastic using the current method means potentially destroying 90 percent of the neuston,” Helm wrote, though Ocean Cleanup’s environmental-impact assessment doesn’t mention the ecosystem once. “Using these wall-like barriers to collect plastic in spite of the neuston,” she explained, “is like clear-cutting a canopy in the name of helping a forest. There is no point in collecting plastic if by the end there is nothing left to conserve.”
A perfect example of a well-intentioned solution to one problem that will cause untold other problems.
I am now retired, but was the senior environmental scientist for a state government in the Midwest. (Began my career as a marine biologist in South Florida. Loved the neuston! Also did lots of plankton work back in those days.)
I cannot tell how many times I have had to work on projects to undo the environmental and health disasters that resulted from “solutions” to another problem.
The major outbreak of St. Louis Encephalitis in the Midwest back in the 1970s was precipitated by well-intentioned efforts to alleviate fish kills from food-processing plants—an interesting cascade of events brought on by the synergistic effect of narrowly focused bureaucrats, environmental engineers, politicians, and overzealous, uninformed environmental activists.
Thanks for making folks aware of this concern for the neuston!
I truly enjoyed your article on how the Ocean Cleanup project threatens aquatic creatures we know little about.
Isn’t it ironic, though, that nature has recovered and adapted to the bad, and now that we want to do good to fix our bad, fixing the bad will be just as bad?
Maybe we should build an artificial floating raft that these neuston can use to thrive on, then slowly start to clean up so we don’t destroy two ecosystems for the price of one.
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
I think one of the most exciting things is that Rebecca investigated and shared what the neuston is. So few people have ever heard of it, the sheer beauty of its inhabitants and the incredible importance to the health of the ocean ecology and by extension, the planet. Even many of those who study ocean ecology misunderstand or simply skip over it.
We at Oceanamatica came to the exact same conclusion Rebecca did—the plastic is in the same routes and patterns, so we need to study it first to understand better what is happening before deploying systems in it to recover plastics. (Our primary deployment zones are bays, harbors, deltas, injection points.)
A few years ago we started pulling together a good bit of data, and applied for grants to fund studies of the neuston and its systems. Further, the neuston’s importance changed our design—we have cameras, sensors, and scanners that tell the remote operator what the density of sea life is in the area. The system itself is also designed to allow this sea life to escape through apertures in the equipment, as long as it is under 10 millimeters. In this way, we are trying to balance removing as much plastic as possible larger than 10 millimeters with protecting the neuston. If we can at least keep the larger pieces from breaking down into microplastics, we can stop the destructive cycle of the billions of pounds of plastic already in the ecosystem.
Capt. Jeff Hohonukai
Yes, countries like the Philippines dump plastic in rivers, but the plastic of which you speak comes from ocean dumping. You speak of the source, but not the cause.
Cruise ships, ocean liners, military ships, and freighters can all dump waste into the ocean, and they do.
Laguna Hills, Calif.
This just confirms the ecologist Garrett Hardin’s first law of ecology, which states, “You can never do merely one thing.”
I was so impressed with the Ocean Cleanup story and used it to inspire children I work with. Reading Rebecca’s cautionary article of the impending doom to the neuston made me think, Thank God the Ocean Cleanup is not deployed yet, and I hope that they will re-innovate and reengineer their solution in light of these findings.
I will use Rebecca’s article to inspire my students that in spite of the great effort we make in finding solutions, we must be open to new findings and have the courage to change even though we may have gone far down a road.
Rebecca Helm replies:
To Ron Weiss: I had not heard this story, but this is an excellent example of how good intentions, without proper research, can quickly go bad. Thank you for sharing.
To Darryl Kenney: I am glad you enjoyed the article. It is true that some neustonic animals are using ocean plastic as a habitat, like the ocean water strider Halobates, which is now laying eggs on plastic. However, some are also eating plastic, which may be problematic. Because the animals in the neuston make their own floats, they wouldn’t need a man-made float. Instead, taking time to learn more about them might be the best way to help this ecosystem.
Thank you to Capt. Jeff Hohonukai! Neustonic animals are truly a strange group, and I hope this article helps raise their profile (if even by a little bit).
Thank you, Pat Barry, for your reply. I agree that policy changes are needed to truly tackle the ocean-plastic issue. Fortunately, some policies are already in place, like the MARPOL Annex V, which prohibits the dumping of plastic anywhere at sea. But much more still needs to be done. Thank you for bringing up this valuable point.
I will be printing out the quote that Cliff Terry shared and putting it on my wall!
To Kultar Nat: Thank you so much for your kind comment. I also hope the Ocean Cleanup project takes the time to reflect and reconsider. Please say hello to your students for me!