34 Sydney Norris – Ocean Pollution and Marine Wildlife

Sydney Norris

Ocean Pollution and Marine Wildlife

There is a tremendous amount of pollution swimming in the ocean, and as ocean pollution continues to rapidly grow, the weight of all pollution in the ocean will surpass the weight of all combined marine species in the sea.  The ocean is a vital ecosystem that an extraordinary amount of marine wildlife depends on, and pollution is significantly destroying it, while the marine species are taking the toll.  Additionally, the ocean is home to nearly ninety-four percent of earth’s living species.  However, with ocean pollution increasing considerably, it is estimated that nearly 250 million tons of plastic will end up in the ocean within the next six years.  Ultimately, pollution is profoundly impacting marine wildlife, leading to approximately 2,270 marine species that are endangered or facing extinction.  The ocean is drowning in extreme amounts of pollution, consequently threatening marine wildlife and demanding immediate action to reduce the damage and save marine species.

The oceans cover more than seventy percent of the earth’s surface.  The greatest source of oxygen comes from the ocean’s environments such as phytoplankton and marine algae.  Additionally, nearly fifty to eighty-five percent of oxygen that makes up the earth’s atmosphere is derived from the ocean.  Moreover, garbage is constantly filtering into the ocean through different means and harmfully impacting its environments by threatening the ecosystem itself and therefore causing potential diminishment of oxygen the ocean supplies naturally.

A substantial amount of waste infests the ocean every year, and roughly eighty percent of ocean pollution is caused by human activity such as oil spills, fertilizers, sewage disposal, and deadly chemicals that damage environments and diminish oxygen supply.  For example, The World Wildlife Fund, a conservation organization committed to ending the degradation of the planet’s natural environments, expands on fertilizers in their article “Ocean Pollution is a Global Threat,” stating that

Fertilizer runoff from farms and lawns is a huge problem for coastal areas. The extra nutrients cause eutrophication—flourishing of algal blooms that deplete the water’s dissolved oxygen and suffocate other marine life.  Eutrophication has created enormous dead zones in several parts of the world, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Baltic Sea.

The WWF evaluates the significant effect that fertilizers have on the ocean and its environments from excess run-off.  Due to this, fertilizers and other pesticides associated with fertilizers such as DDT and PCBs create reduction among the ocean’s phytoplankton and marine algal blooms that result in oxygen deficiency.  Highlighting this factor of pollution caused by human activity, the WWF also note that the ocean is in possession of extreme dead zones as a dangerous effect from such pollutants.

Another destructive factor of pollution infesting the ocean is oil and related deadly chemicals that result from oil spills.  Judith S. Weis, an expert on marine biology, describes the deadly components of oil affecting the condition of the ocean in her book Marine Pollution: What Everyone Needs to Know by explaining that

Oil is a complex combination of various hydrocarbons (carbon-based compounds with hydrogen atoms attached). […] Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are major toxic components of oil. There are thousands of different compounds in this group; the larger molecules (with more rings) are less soluble in water, more soluble in fats, and tend to be more carcinogenic (cancer-causing), mutagenic (causing genetic mutations), or teratogenic (causing embryonic malformations). (64)

Weis emphasizes the toxicity of oil and the deadly chemicals that spread in the ocean from oil spills.  Due to the immiscibility of oil and water, the oil and chemicals cause suffocation and contamination of the ocean’s environments and therefore cause oxygen to decrease.  Additionally, the dangerous chemicals related to oil are often fatal and lethal to marine wildlife by increasing risk of serious illness, unnatural alterations in genes, and developmental defects.

Furthermore, due to the growing issue of pollution that that is fiercely entering the ocean in many ways, it is creating garbage patches that are harmfully impacting the ocean’s environments.  Thomas Hayden, a marine biologist and biological oceanography expert, highlights in his periodical “Trashing the Oceans” one of the five garbage patches floating in the ocean.  According to Hayden, “The [North Pacific subtropical high] is the eye of a circle of currents thousands of miles wide called the North Pacific gyre. The high’s weak winds and sluggish currents naturally collect flotsam, earning it the unfortunate nickname of the “Eastern Garbage Patch.” Similar wind and current patterns exist in all the major oceans, and all presumably suffer from similar contamination” (58).  Hayden stresses that trash is constantly collecting in heaps within this area of the ocean; however, there are four more of these areas similarly being affected.  As a result, marine environments experience poisoning and deterioration from the heaping piles of concentrated garbage.

The extreme amount of pollution in the ocean and its range of factors are certainly taking a detrimental toll on marine environments that naturally produce oxygen.  In addition, the loss of oxygen creates a fatal environment for marine wildlife to suffocate.  However, the range of pollutants only begins to touch the surface of the damage within the ocean.  Not only are the environments suffering, but the marine wildlife is facing severe risks as well.  Diving deeper, the marine wildlife is catastrophically being affected, consequently losing their lives to pollution invading their home every day, and the major culprit to this increasing devastation is plastic.

Plastic is undoubtedly the element of pollution that is most predominant in the ocean and causing serious harm to many marine species.  In his article “Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean,” director of the preventing ocean plastics project, Simon Reddy, explains that “[…] at least 800 species worldwide are affected by marine debris, and as much as 80 percent of that litter is plastic. It is estimated that up to 13 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year—the equivalent of a rubbish or garbage truck load’s worth every minute.”  Reddy gives a distressing insight to how much plastic is in the ocean and the severity of the issue on marine wildlife.  Plastic is constantly infesting the ocean and the rate is rising excessively.  Additionally, the war between plastic and marine wildlife is causing detrimental harm throughout marine populations and taking many casualties.  There is an immense amount of plastic swimming among marine species and therefore causing the wildlife to encounter the lethal component of pollution invading their home through three common ways.

Firstly, marine wildlife are encountering plastic through entanglement, referring to plastic and debris enveloping, entrapping, and constricting marine species.  According to Sarah C. Gall and Richard C. Thompson, experts in marine biology and ecology research, their article “The Impact of Debris on Marine Wildlife” explains that of 700 marine species that have encountered debris, roughly ninety-two percent were encounters of entanglement involving plastic, and almost twenty percent of those marine species are endangered or threatened with it (170).  Gall and Thompson show how significant of an issue plastic entanglement can be when just floating in the ocean.  Marine species face this entanglement risk at any moment and have no strategy of avoiding it due to its extremity.  Moreover, entanglement affects an abundance of marine species and causes serious injuries in the process.  To elaborate, Kara L. Law, an oceanographer and chief scientist of the Sea Education Association, illustrates the extent of the damage of plastic entanglement in her article “Plastics in the Marine Environment,” stating

Entanglement has now been reported for 344 species, including 100% of marine turtles, 67% of seals, 31% of whales, and 25% of seabirds, as well as 89 species of fish and 92 species of invertebrates. […] Hazards of entanglement include bodily harm, such as injury to dermal tissue; interference with growth, potentially causing deformations; and restricted movement affecting swimming, feeding, and the ability to escape predators. These hazards might ultimately result in drowning, starvation, or predation of individuals. Multiple studies have demonstrated death caused by entanglement. (205)

Law emphasizes the extreme risks that result from entanglement and stresses the fatal impacts it has on marine wildlife.  Despite marine wildlife struggling to unravel from the entrapment of plastic, thousands fall victim to plastic entanglement.  Thus leaving marine wildlife to swim in an ocean crowded with traps of floating plastic.

Secondly, marine species are mistaking millions of tons of plastic for sources of nutrition through ingestion that ultimately proves to viciously impact marine wildlife.  To illustrate the devastation of ingestion among marine wildlife, Law explains

[…] plastic ingestion has now been documented for 233 marine species, including 100% of marine turtles, 36% of seals, 59% of whales, and 59% of seabirds, as well as 92 species of fish and 6 species of invertebrates.  Ingested debris may have a variety of consequences for the consuming organism. […] Large volumes of debris have been hypothesized to reduce storage capacity in the stomach and to cause false satiation, leading to a reduced appetite, and they have also been shown to cause obstruction of the gut. The ingested debris can cause internal injury, such as a perforated gut, ulcerative lesions, or gastric rupture, potentially leading to death. (205)

Law describes how so often plastic is found in the bellies of marine wildlife, weakening their overall condition and consequently shortening their lifespans.  When marine species ingest plastic, it becomes increasingly harmful to their health and their ability to eat other prey.  Additionally, with the amount of plastic invading the ocean, the rate of ingestion among marine wildlife will continue to grow as plastic continues to mimic other sea creatures.

Lastly, marine wildlife is constantly encountering plastic through interaction.  Although interaction is similar to entanglement, interaction differs from entanglement because it includes confrontations with plastic that does not involve entangling or trapping contact.  According to Law’s article “Plastics in the Marine Environment,” one of the major pieces of plastic pollution that pose a dangerous threat to marine wildlife through interaction is fishing gear and fishing nets.  Law explains that fishing gear and nets have been shown to cause tissue damage and breakage when marine species interact and swim with such pollution.  Additionally, Law also notes that much of plastic debris causes damage to coral ecosystems in the process of marine wildlife interaction.  Ultimately, Law further explains that this can lead to suffocation due to plastic contact among marine species and within environments (205).  It is inevitable for marine wildlife to interact with plastic pollution, and as they do, marine species unknowingly destroy their habitats and themselves just through plastic contact.  Furthermore, marine wildlife face harmful threats as plastic interaction increases the probability of oxygen depletion throughout marine environments due to the settlement of plastic debris within them.

Overall, ocean pollution, notoriously plastic, is constantly swimming among marine wildlife and poses severe threats and cause detrimental effects.  Marine environments and the wildlife that are supported through them depend on the ocean entirely.  As the ocean continues to transform into earths largest and deepest dumpster, the marine environments and wildlife are enduring the destruction.  Ultimately, this demands for immediate action to be taken to clean up the ocean and reduce the damage so marine wildlife can swim and thrive in an ocean free of trash.

As ocean pollution proves to be a deadly issue, it is imperative to understand what small steps individuals can do that result in a powerful difference.  In her book Marine Pollution: What Everyone Needs to Know, Judith S. Weis explains the little actions individuals can do that make a great impact for the sake of the ocean and marine wildlife.  First, Weis describes the actions that can be taken in order to reduce run-off of fertilizers and pesticides.  To prevent eutrophication, Weis encourages individuals to plant grass, trees, or shrubs in vacant areas such as open fields, front or back yards, and areas near coastlines to catch run-off and erosion in their roots.  Secondly, on the subject of garbage, Weis explains that it is important to be conscious about waste and how it is disposed.  Weis stresses the significance of recycling and reusable materials.  Weis also highlights that the less garbage that is produced, the less of a chance it has to end up in the ocean.  Furthermore, Weis emphasizes the minimization of the carbon footprint by saving energy.  Lastly, Weis notes that knowing the proper and safe way to dispose of toxic chemicals such as oil, batteries, electronics, and pharmaceutical drugs has a significant impact on the likelihood of the deadly chemicals ending up in the ocean (232).  Understanding the factors contributing to the increasing threats on the ocean is greatly important.  By doing so, the small differences and actions that can easily be taken among individuals significantly lowers the potential damage of pollution in the future.  Moreover, the recognition that ocean pollution presents the fatal outcome of devastation to the ecosystem itself and marine wildlife is critical because the steps that can greatly reverse the damage are undeniably simple.

Furthermore, because the worst element of pollution is plastic, it is crucial to considerably clean up the amount of it that is invading the ocean and harming marine wildlife.  Boyan Slat, the CEO and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, explains in his interview “Combatting Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans” his revolutionary creation that will relieve the ocean of plastic pollution, primarily focusing on the great pacific garbage patch, stating that

We proposed to deploy a fleet of artificial coastlines where there are no coastlines and basically using the natural ocean currents in our advantage by deploying these very long, U-shaped floating barriers that would first concentrate the plastic before we would take it out and models show that with fleets of sixty of these cleanup systems, we should be able to clean up half the great pacific garbage patch every five years (Sachs).

Slat stresses the significance of eliminating plastic because once it filters into the ocean; it often accumulates into large floating piles of garbage.  However, with the help of this device, reducing the rate of plastic polluting the ocean will diminish slowly, but effectively.  Additionally, this also illustrates how pervasive of a problem plastic pollution is because it will still take an extended amount of time to clean up.  Despite the amount of time that will have to be devoted to this particular project, this is a monumental step for marine wildlife and the ocean.

The extreme amount of pollution inhabiting the ocean is dangerously affecting marine ecosystems and its wildlife by killing thousands of marine species persistently.  The severity of pollution invading the ocean is leading to the diminishment of marine ecosystems by suffocating and destroying them, resulting in oxygen depletion.  Correspondingly, marine wildlife is suffering tremendously as species endure the collapse of the ecosystem they depend on completely.  Unfortunately, populations, species, and environments that support life under water will continue to die out entirely at a rapid rate if pollution continues to infest the ocean.  Individuals must take action to clean up the ocean through methods such as recycling, reusing materials, saving energy, planting, and proper disposal of chemicals to reduce pollution entirely.  It is crucial to understand the damaging effects of ocean pollution in order to prevent further damage and protect marine environments and wildlife that are in desperate need of it.



Works Cited

Gall, Sarah C, and Thompson, Richard C. “The Impact of Debris on Marine Life.” NeuroImage,  Academic Press, 15 Mar. 2015, pp. 170-179.

Hayden, Thomas. “Trashing the Oceans.” News & World Report, vol. 133, no.17, Nov. 2002, pp. 58.

Law, Kara L. “Plastics in the Marine Environment.” Annual Review of Marine Science, 7 Sept. 2016, pp. 205-229.

Reddy, Simon. “Plastic Pollution Affects Sea Life Throughout the Ocean.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 14 Sept. 2018.

Sachs, Goldman, director. “Boyan Slat: Combatting Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans.” YouTube, YouTube, 18 Apr. 2018.

Weis, Judith S. Marine Pollution : What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2015.

World Wildlife Fund. “Ocean Pollution Is a Global Threat.” Pollution, edited by Debra A. Miller, Greenhaven Press, Opposing Viewpoints in Context, 2012.



Two Waters Review, Volume One - 2016 to 2019 Copyright © by Matthew Bloom. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book