A couple of years ago I blogged a piece on ‘Leave No Trace’ - Keeping Islands Pristine and I've since have had many fruitful discussions with clients and other kayakers, especially folks at Maine Island Trail about this wonderful idea called Leave No Trace (LNT). I thought that now is a good time to revisit this topic but with a larger lens.
As a sea kayak guide who paddles with clients from various parts of the country who may or may not have done a lot of kayaking, I’m often surprised at how many of these outdoor types who are familiar with Leave No Trace practices on land yet have little or no appreciation for how we may impact the environment when we spend time on the water. So on my kayak trips, I always take time out to chat about the more subtle aspects of LNT – be considerate of others - leave what you find - plan ahead and prepare, as well as the bigee - “Dispose of Waste Properly”. I participate regularly in island cleanups which are organized by the Maine Island Trail Association and the majority of trash we see on and around the islands is plastic either in the form of discarded fishing tackle but, more commonly...yes, you've guessed it - plastic bottles, plastic bags, plastic anything and everything.
Many folks have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex which spans the waters from the West coast of North America to Japan. You can read about it here. The Patch is formed by the cycling of four ocean gyres or vortices which are fed by ocean currents. A plastic water bottle discarded off the coast of California, for instance, takes the California Current south toward Mexico. There, it may catch the North Equatorial Current, which crosses the vast Pacific. Near the coast of Japan, the bottle may travel north on the powerful Kuroshiro Current. Finally, the bottle travels westward on the North Pacific Current. And its journey ends at the convergence of these currents where, over time, it degrades - read on.
There's been a lot less focus on the accumulation of trash in the Atlantic Ocean, but a recent article in National Geographic describes a garbage patch which sits hundreds of miles off the North American coast. Its east-west span is unknown but the patch covers a region between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude—roughly the distance from Cuba to Virginia. A comparable system of ocean currents which I've described in the Pacific ocean are in play here on our Atlantic coast and so, yes, plastic trash deposited off the Maine coast may well end up traveling 100's of miles out to sea.
The problem of plastics in the water is a complex one. It’s not just the unsightliness of debris – debris accumulates because much of it is not biodegradable - many plastics, do not wear down; they are simply broken down by the sun (photo-degradation) into tinier and tinier pieces called microplastics which then enter the food chain. As well as causing physical harm to mammals, fish, invertebrates such as shellfish and birds, colorants and chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to environmental and health problems are leached out into the water and can enter the food chain when consumed by marine life. As microplastics and other trash collect on or near the surface of the ocean, they block sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below. Algae and plankton are the most common autotrophs, or producers, in the marine food web. Autotrophs are organisms that can produce their own nutrients from oxygen, carbon, and sunlight. If algae and plankton communities are threatened, the entire food web may change. Animals that feed on algae and plankton, such as some marine mammals, fish and turtles, will have less food. If populations of those animals decrease, there will be less food for apex predators such as tuna, sharks, and whales.
Check out this great YouTube on trash and microplastics Video from Channel One.
Cleaning up marine debris is not as easy as it sounds. Many microplastics are the same size as small marine creatures, so nets designed to scoop up trash would catch these creatures as well. Even if we could design nets that would just catch garbage, the size of the oceans makes this job far too time-consuming to consider. The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program has estimated that it would take more than 50 ships one year to clean up less than one percent of the North Pacific Ocean. The scale of clean-up in the Atlantic would be similar.
So, it's really all about how we act on the water, what we discard and whether we give any thought to the larger impact of our small actions, such as absolutely no plastictrash. And as I caution my clients to observe “Leave No Trace’ principles, I try to emphasize that it’s more than just about keeping these islands looking good. It’s literally about the future of Planet Earth - hardly what we want to be thinking about as we enjoy our hours or days in our kayaks on the water. The other side of the coin, however, is that we can feel good every time we don’t ‘lose’ that plastic bottle over the side, or better yet, when we carry home something plastic that someone else has left behind and then ‘picking up’ becomes one more part of ‘ Finding Your Inner Paddler’.