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How Ocean Pollution Affects Marine Life

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  • Pages: 5
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  • Category: Fishing

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Ocean pollution has been a major concern for the past few decades. According to Melissa Denchak, an author for the National Resources Defense Council, humans are, “drowning marine ecosystems in trash, noise, oil, and carbon emissions” (2018, par. 1). Oscar Schachter, a professor of international law and diplomacy, and Daniel Serwer, a professor of conflict management, supports Denchak’s claim by arguing that this is a global issue that many countries contribute toward (1971, p. 1). This complex issue has many different factors that lead to the pollution of Earth’s oceans, which adversely affects marine life.

Plastic Ocean Pollution

The disposal of plastic into the seas endangers the life of many sea creatures, as seen through John H. Tibbetts, a science writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Yale Environment 360, and many other sources. Tibbetts found that ,“lost and discarded nets and lines from fishing vessels are important contributors to marine debris, especially in heavily fished areas” (2015, par. 4). Due to carelessness and ignorance, fishing vessels commonly drop plastic equipment into the ocean (Tibbetts, 2015, par. 4). This begins the journey of most plastic into the waters to pollute the marine animals’ habitat.

Alla Katsnelson, a science writer with a doctorate in Physiology from the University of Oxford, identified that many scientists have found microplastic fibers in the digestive tracts of over one hundred different species of sea animals (2015, p. 1). These fibers have also be proven to be able to pass through the gills of different fish and crabs (Katsnelson, 2015, p. 1). Katsnelson additionally claims that, “microplastic also soaks up pollutants that are present in the ocean and delivers them into sea creatures’ tissues” (2015, p. 1). Although this information seems alarming, Katsnelson explains that the exact harm this may cause to sea life is unknown (2015, p. 3). She identifies that scientists are now researching this topic to conclude whether this will present an impactful result on the ecosystem.

In contrast to Katsnelson’s inconclusive evidence, David W. Laist, an ecologist at the Marine Mammal Commission, found that because of this pollution being dumped into the water, sea life is greatly affected (1987). Laist found that creatures are harmed by plastic in two ways, ingestion and entanglement (1987). Marine life who become entangled can be choked and can develop life-threatening injuries (Laist, 1987). Sea life who mistake some pollution for food, ingest it the material, which may block their digestive tracts and damage the lining of their stomach (Laist, 1987).

Effects of Ingesting Plastics on Marine Life

Ingestion is one of many ways that sea creatures are harmed by plastic ocean pollution. A team of three scientists – Chris Wilcox, who studies ecology and conservation biology, Erik Van Sebille, of the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, and Britta Denise Hardesty, who studies the global impact of cutting down on plastic pollution – have come together to research plastic pollution. Through the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, they found that the effects of plastic are numerous, “ranging from physical gut blockage to organ damage from leaking toxins” (2015, p. 1). The toxins that enter the body of marine life and seabirds lead to a decreased life expectancy and increased risk to the species reproductive organs (Wilcox, Sebille, & Hardesty, 2015, p. 1). Wilcox, Sebille, and Hardesty predicted that the number of marine animals affected by plastic will only continue to rise because of the increasing amount of plastic being produced (Wilcox, Sebille, & Hardesty, 2015, p.3).

For example, in 2009, M. Andrew Stamper, Chad W. Spicer, Donald L. Neiffer, Kristin S. Matthews, and Gregory J. Fleming, all in the medical field as either veterinarians or doctors, wrote a paper that examined the effects of the ingestion of plastic in a juvenile green sea turtle that was found in 2006. The creature was found on the coast of Florida, floating with signs of cachexia or the wasting of a body due to chronic illness, dehydration, and anorexia (Stamper, Spicer, Neiffer, Matthews, & Fleming, 2009, p. 196). After eighteen days of rehabilitation for the sea turtle, it started to show signs of recovery. It began to defecate nearly seventy-four items over the next month including, “four types of latex balloons, one piece of mylar balloon, five different types of string, nine different types of soft plastic, four different types of hard plastic, two pieces of nylon line, three pieces of monofilament line, a piece of carpet-like material, and two two to four mm tar balls” (Stamper, Spicer, Neiffer, Matthews, & Fleming, 2009, p. 197).

After the passing of these materials, the sea turtle’s health was restored and it was able to survive back in the wild, but most creatures are not quite as lucky. The majority of sea creatures who consume sufficient amounts of plastic can not be found and saved. These instances highlight that the ingestion of plastics in marine life, such as sea turtles, leads to, “anorexia, cachexia, positive buoyancy, lethargy, and obstipation” (Stamper, Spicer, Neiffer, Matthews, & Fleming, 2009, p. 197).

The Entangling of Sea Creatures in Plastic

Entanglement is the biggest threat to marine animals lives, as seen through research by Gregory E. Lang, who has his Ph.D. in Microbial Evolution and is an assistant professor at Lehigh University (1990, p. 733). Fishing gear has been found to be the most impactful form of plastic that can choke a sea creature (Lang, 1990, p. 734). This entanglement can cause prey to be more vulnerable to their predator. For example, the fur seal has been severely impacted by this with nearly 50,000 being killed each year because of plastic entanglement in fishing nets, especially pelaic nets, which hang vertically in the water (Lang, 1990, p. 735).

The Devolution of Ocean Life

Over the past years, human pollution into the water has greatly affected the wildlife living in the sea. Alan B. Sielen, former Deputy Assistant Administrator for International Activities at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found that this pollution has caused a devolution of the underwater population (2013). Devolution is occurring now because, “human activities have so altered the basic chemistry of the seas that they are now experiencing evolution in reverse: a return to the barren primeval waters of hundreds of millions of years ago” (Sielen, 2013, par. 1). He claims that the ocean’s once diverse and plentiful abundance of species is now decreasing back to an environment as lifeless as it was 3.5 billion years ago, when the majority of creatures were microorganisms. “Pollution, overfishing, the destruction of habitats, and climate change are emptying the oceans and enabling the lowest forms of life to regain their dominance” (Sielen, 2013, par. 3). The pollution is causing the transformation of the aquatic ecosystem from extremely complex to frighteningly simple (Sielen, 2013).


With the growing amount of plastic pollution entering the world’s ocean, marine life is being damaged more and more every year. Sea creatures are ingesting plastic and being entangled in it which leads to numerous health issues. According to Aisling Maria Cronin, who works with The One Green Planet Organization, it this pollution does not come to a halt by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (2017). In order to protect the home of millions of sea creatures, humanity must come together to prevent the mass ocean pollution that occurs each year.

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