Our Seas Are Sicker

Orange County oil spill cleanup – From a Google image Search – ABC7

In May 2015 I wrote: 

“We sort of view our oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes as a giant purification system. We can empty any dirty old thing in there and it will come out clean. But we have been fooling ourselves with this science of wishful thinking. When our population was smaller, and the waste we emptied into our water was mainly organic, this faux water science sort of worked. But with 7 billion plus people on the planet even organic wastes are taxing our water systems, fresh and salty.”

We seem to be trying to keep our freshwater resources cleaner and fresher, although there are still too many environmental accidents. But, most individuals have little or no control over what is happening in our seas and oceans. We are still presented with so much plastic as consumers. Getting rid of plastic bags is finally happening and that’s great. Plastic take-out containers, plastic straws, plastic wraps and packing materials are still making mountains of trash, and although much of it can be recycled, some places that used to accept plastic to recycle like China, no longer accept our plastic waste. Tons of plastic waste ends up in our waterways and oceans. There is that great group, “4Oceans”, that is working to clean up plastic waste on beaches. There is the guy who invented the giant plastic vacuum cleaner to pull plastics out of water using nets, similar to the way fishermen pull fish from the oceans. Plastic waste is a problem we can help with, by innovating ways to replace each piece of plastic we use. 

We have learned a lesson we already knew, and we have learned it repeatedly – everything is interconnected. Plastic waste doesn’t stay in the ocean. Plastic finds its way around the necks of birds; it destroys a fish’s quality of life by getting wrapped around its mouth and head. There is usually no person around that poor fish to remove the plastic. It stays there as an irritant, or perhaps the fish can no longer eat properly, and the plastic becomes a killer. 

The ocean grinds plastics down into tiny pebbles the size of grains of sand, birds who eat by scooping up tiny organisms in sand have ways to filter out the sand, but not the plastic. Then they feed their babies with the food they have scooped up, but the plastic is passed on too, the babies starve, and the entire family dies off. We have lost 3 billion birds in the last census taken by bird counters. If plastic kills birds which are pretty high up on the food chain, imagine what happens to those tiny critters that birds eat that rely on even smaller things that live in the sand at the bottom of ocean. If birds die and fish die, then eventually we die. Everything is interconnected.

This past week in early October 2021 a pipeline was breached near the beautiful beaches of Orange County, California – Huntington Beach, Long Beach, Laguna Beach, Dana Point Harbor, Newport Harbor. It was an underwater oil pipeline possibly scraped by anchors in a high-volume shipping harbor. At the bottom of the ocean oil coats seaweeds and living things and kills everything that it covers. On the beach it smells and makes enjoying a beautiful natural environment dangerous and unpleasant. Near the beach are the wetlands, biological nurseries, environmental safeguards; protected sanctuaries designed to act as buffers against man’s voracious desires for development and biome destruction. But the oil cannot be kept away, at least until the booms are placed that block the oil from traveling across the water. We mourn every time we see the birds drenched in black raw oil and see the habitat workers cleaning them off. We sometimes are shown the ones that die, sometimes not. Plants are killed off too which can hopefully regrow if the soil is not too poisoned. This happens over and over. 

“We sort of view our oceans, seas, rivers, and lakes as a giant purification system.” 

When does the challenge become too great? What is the tipping point? When do our oceans die? Can oceans clean up oil? Oil and water don’t mix. Water requires additives to clean up oil, additives we can’t put into our water because they will alter water’s chemistry. Where does the oil go in the long term? What knock on effects does that oil have years later? Oil spills have happened near every nation that has a coastline and imports and/or exports oil. Here’s a short list of some of the largest oil spills.

Orange County pipeline spill, 2021

Deepwater Horizon blowout, 2010

Exxon Valdez tanker grounded off Alaska, 1989

Ixtoc, spill off Mexico, 1979

Gulf War spill, collision, 1981

Amoco Cadiz, tanker ran aground, 1978

Castillo de Beliver oil fire after spill, 1983

Atlantic Empress, collision off Trinidad and Tobago, 1979

There was a spill in the Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon, the Emerald Marine Ltd. spill, there have been oil spills off the China coast-in 2021 a collision between oil tanker and bulk carrier off China’s east port city of Qingdao into the Yellow Sea, in 2018 when an Iranian oil tanker sank in the East China Sea. Most of this info is available online as a search answer on Google. 

An article in Environmental Science and Technology at pub.acs.org is entitled, “Long-Term Ecological Impacts from Oil Spills: Comparison of Exxon Valley, Hebei Spirit, Deepwater Horizon”. Scientists found long term effects on seabirds, sea otters, killer whales, and subtidal communities. Near the Deepwater Horizon spill they found effects on a diversity of complex aquatic communities in the deep ocean and offshore biologic areas, coastal environmental impacts to deep ocean corals, failed recruitment of oysters over multiple years, damage to coastal wetlands, reduced dolphin, sea turtles and seabird populations. In the Hebei Spirit spill off Western Korea, environmental conditions that were different and extensive cleanup resulted in limited long-term impacts. This last example offers some hope that human intervention can work although in open ocean situations the consequences may not be as easily ameliorated.

Living on a planet with dead oceans will eventually kill us all. This is not even global warming, which is having other effects like slowing the Atlantic current, but this is a fossil fuel effect because oil and gas are being moved around the globe and accidents happen, drunk captains happen, storms happen, wars happen. This is a repetitive tragedy that individuals cannot resolve. This is an industry problem, so we need the help of everyone in the oil and gas chain, all those who are least likely to want to help. This is a problem that will cost money, so it is the province of billionaires and millionaires. We’ll help if we have clear guidance about what to do.

Obviously, the biggest problem of all is that we don’t have enough clean energy sources to generate all the energy we use without gas, oil, and even, perhaps, coal. We don’t want to lose our comforts, but we want to keep the planet functioning. Keep working on this everyone. Perhaps the universe will offer up a solution if they see that we really want to save our planet. Keep finding biodegradable alternatives to plastics. Keep creating better batteries or other ways to store power. Keep inventing alternative energies. Meditate. Speak to a higher power. We may be locusts, but we are locusts with brains, and we can do this.