Marine Debris is Suffocating South Florida’s Precious Waterways

Marine Debris is Suffocating South Florida’s Precious Waterways
plastic bag
A generic plastic bag photographed off Deerfield Beach, Florida.

Our oceans and coastal waterways are gasping for breath, being choked by trash, otherwise known as marine debris.

In a report found by the World Economic Forum, they said, “Without significant action, there may be more plastic than fish in the ocean, by weight, by 2050.”

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment.

Plastic is known to be one of the most abundant types of marine debris found in our oceans today.

The United States Census Bureau estimates the world’s population to be well over seven billion, Florida’s population in excess of 21 million, and South Florida’s population as of 2017 to be over 6 million. These staggering numbers reflect the immense pressure our marine environment is under.

With so many people, comes an adverse amount of trash and debris being deposited into the marine environment.

Jenna R. Jambeck, an associate professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia, found that 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions.

One of the main issues with plastic is it can remain in the ocean for hundreds of years in its original form, and even longer in small particles known as micro-plastics. A 2016 report from the World Economic Forum, estimated there to be more than 150 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean.

Various cities and towns across the U.S. have enacted their own bans on single-use plastics, such as plastic straws.

The first city in Florida to enact these bans on single-use plastics is Coral Gables. An environmental pioneer, the city already has had a plastic foam ban in place since the previous year.

Among marine debris, one of the most common types found is the plastic bag.

David Anderson, who works out of the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton as a Sea Turtle Conservation Coordinator, claims marine debris often looks like food to the turtles, which causes them to consume it.

The plastic and other debris that the turtles eat fill their stomachs giving them the false impression that they are full, starting a vicious cycle. Plastic gives the turtles no nutritional benefit, inevitably causing the turtle to become malnourished, become weak, and eventually become starved or make them susceptible to predation.

One of sea turtles’ main food sources is the jellyfish. Various forms of marine debris like plastic bags or balloons often look like their favorite gelatinous food source. The food source often gets mistaken by the turtle, which thinks it is fulfilling its food requirement by eating a plastic bag thinking it is a jellyfish.

Many of these turtles are baby turtles, otherwise known as post hatchlings. According to Anderson, 100 percent of all post hatchlings that have washed back have plastic found in them.

“Jellyfish are like the cookies of the sea turtle world,” says Anderson. “All sea turtles will take the opportunity to feed on a jellyfish,” (or what looks like one.)

As our population continues to grow, likely so will the problem of marine debris and the effect it has on the environment.

“Often times, people don’t understand how bad the effects can be until it’s too late,” Davis said.

But its not too late, South Florida is responding. Clean-up efforts are happening all over Florida, not only at specific events, but also businesses, organizations as well as nonprofits which are geared towards ocean clean up, are taking hold.

Founded in 2017, 4Ocean is a company started out of Boca Raton and is focused on removing plastic waste from the ocean. Funded by selling bracelets made from recycled materials they collect, the company pledges to remove one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines for every bracelet that is sold.

Nonprofits such as Boca Save our Beaches are also doing their part to protect the environment in South Florida for generations to come. They are dedicated to protecting the marine ecosystem through community collaboration, conservation and educational awareness.

Boca Save our Beaches places an emphasis on being to empower people of all backgrounds and ages in the community to work together in establishing goals to safeguard the coast while promoting a clean marine environment.

Paul Davis has no intentions of giving up either, “It’s important to keep people’s hopes up, there is still something to save, the ocean can recover, with the right course of action, I’ve seen it happen in areas for myself,” said Davis. “A clean ocean is attainable.”

*Written for a Public Affairs journalism assignment during my time at Florida Atlantic University.