Marine pollution occurs when harmful, or potentially harmful effects, can result from the entry into the ocean of chemicals, particles, industrial, agricultural and residential waste, noise, or the spread of invasive organisms. Most sources of marine pollution are land based. The pollution often comes from non-point sources such as agricultural runoff and windblown debris and dust.
Many potentially toxic chemicals adhere to tiny particles which are then taken up by plankton and benthos animals, most of which are either deposit or filter feeders. In this way, the toxins are concentrated upward within ocean food chains. Many particles combine chemically in a manner highly depletive of oxygen, causing estuaries to become anoxic.
When pesticides are incorporated into the marine ecosystem, they quickly become absorbed into marine food webs. Once in the food webs, these pesticides can cause mutations, as well as diseases, which can be harmful to humans as well as the entire food web.
Toxic metals can also be introduced into marine food webs. These can cause a change to tissue matter, biochemistry, behavior, reproduction, and suppress growth in marine life. Also, many animal feeds have a high fish meal or fish hydrolysis content. In this way, marine toxins can be transferred to land animals, and appear later in meat and dairy products.
Pathways of pollution
There are many different ways to categorize, and examine the inputs of pollution into our marine ecosystems. Patin (n.d.) notes that generally there are three main types of inputs of pollution into the ocean: direct discharge of waste into the oceans, runoff into the waters due to rain, and pollutants that are released from the atmosphere.
One common path of entry by contaminants to the sea are rivers. The evaporation of water from oceans exceeds precipitation. The balance is restored by rain over the continents entering rivers and then being returned to the sea. The Hudson in New York State and the Raritan in New Jersey, which empty at the northern and southern ends of Staten Island, are a source of mercury contamination of zooplankton (copepods) in the open ocean. The highest concentration in the filter-feeding copepods is not at the mouths of these rivers but 70 miles south, nearer Atlantic City, because water flows close to the coast. It takes a few days before toxins are taken up by the plankton.
Pollution is often classed as point source or nonpoint source pollution. Point source pollution occurs when there is a single, identifiable, and localized source of the pollution. An example is directly discharging sewage and industrial waste into the ocean. Pollution such as this occurs particularly in developing nations. Nonpoint source pollution occurs when the pollution comes from ill-defined and diffuse sources. These can be difficult to regulate. Agricultural runoff and windblown debris are prime examples.
Acid mine drainage in the Rio Tinto River.
Inland mining for copper, gold. etc., is another source of marine pollution. Most of the pollution is simply soil, which ends up in rivers flowing to the sea. However, some minerals discharged in the course of the mining can cause problems, such as copper, a common industrial pollutant, which can interfere with the life history and development of coral polyps. Mining has a poor environmental track record. For example, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, mining has contaminated portions of the headwaters of over 40% of watersheds in the western continental US. Much of this pollution finishes up in the sea.
Main article: Ship pollution
A cargo ship pumps ballast water over the side.
Ships can pollute waterways and oceans in many ways. Oil spills can have devastating effects. While being toxic to marine life, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found in crude oil, are very difficult to clean up, and last for years in the sediment and marine environment.
Discharge of cargo residues from bulk carriers can pollute ports, waterways and oceans. In many instances vessels intentionally discharge illegal wastes despite foreign and domestic regulation prohibiting such actions. It has been estimated that container ships lose over 10,000 containers at sea each year (usually during storms).Ships also create noise pollution that disturbs natural wildlife, and water from ballast tanks can spread harmful algae and other invasive species.
Ballast water taken up at sea and released in port is a major source of unwanted exotic marine life. The invasive freshwater zebra mussels, native to the Black, Caspian and Azov seas, were probably transported to the Great Lakes via ballast water from a transoceanic vessel. Meinesz believes that one of the worst cases of a single invasive species causing harm to an ecosystem can be attributed to a seemingly harmless jellyfish. Mnemiopsis leidyi, a species of comb jellyfish that spread so it now inhabits estuaries in many parts of the world. It was first introduced in 1982, and thought to have been transported to the Black Sea in a ship’s ballast water. The population of the jellyfish shot up exponentially and, by 1988, it was wreaking havoc upon the local fishing industry. “The anchovy catch fell from 204,000 tons in 1984 to 200 tons in 1993; sprat from 24,600 tons in 1984 to 12,000 tons in 1993; horse mackerel from 4,000 tons in 1984 to zero in 1993.” Now that the jellyfish have exhausted the zooplankton, including fish larvae, their numbers have fallen dramatically, yet they continue to maintain a stranglehold on the ecosystem.
Invasive species can take over once occupied areas facilitate the spread of new diseases, introduce new genetic material, alter underwater seascapes and jeopardize the ability of native species to obtain food. Invasive species are responsible for about $138 billion annually in lost revenue and management costs in the US alone.
Main article: Marine debris
A mute swan builds a nest using plastic garbage.
Marine debris is mainly discarded human rubbish which floats on, or is suspended in the ocean. Eighty percent of marine debris is _and_plastics_bags” title=”Marine debris”>plastic – a component that has been rapidly accumulating since the end of World War II. The mass of plastic in the oceans may be as high as one hundred million metric tons.
Discarded plastic bags, six pack rings and other forms of plastic waste which finish up in the ocean present dangers to wildlife and fisheries.] Aquatic life can be threatened through entanglement, suffocation, and ingestion. Fishing nets, usually made of plastic, can be left or lost in the ocean by fishermen. Known as ghost nets, these entangle fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, and other creatures, restricting movement, causing starvation, laceration and infection, and, in those that need to return to the surface to breathe, suffocation.
Remains of an albatross containing ingested flotsam
Many animals that live on or in the sea consume flotsam by mistake, as it often looks similar to their natural prey. Plastic debris, when bulky or tangled, is difficult to pass, and may become permanently lodged in the digestive tracts of these animals, blocking the passage of food and causing death through starvation or infection.
Plastics accumulate because they don’t biodegrade in the way many other substances do. They will photo degrade on exposure to the sun, but they do so properly only under dry conditions, and water inhibits this process.In marine environments, photo degraded plastic disintegrates into ever smaller pieces while remaining polymers, even down to the molecular level. When floating plastic particles photo degrade down to zooplankton sizes, jellyfish attempt to consume them, and in this way the plastic enters the ocean food chain. Many of these long-lasting pieces end up in the stomachs of marine birds and animals, including sea turtles, and black-footed albatross.
Plastic debris tends to accumulate at the centre of ocean gyres. In particular, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has a very high level of plastic particulate suspended in the upper water column. In samples taken in 1999, the mass of plastic exceeded that of zooplankton (the dominant animal life in the area) by a factor of six. Midway Atoll, in common with all the Hawaiian Islands, receives substantial amounts of debris from the garbage patch. Ninety percent plastic, this debris accumulates on the beaches of Midway where it becomes a hazard to the bird population of the island. Midway Atoll is home to two-thirds (1.5 million) of the global population of Laysan Albatross.] Nearly all of these albatross have plastic in their digestive system and one-third of their chicks die.
Toxic additives used in the manufacture of plastic materials can leach out into their surroundings when exposed to water. Waterborne hydrophobic pollutants collect and magnify on the surface of plastic debris, thus making plastic far more deadly in the ocean than it would be on land. Hydrophobic contaminants are also known to bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, biomagnifying up the food chain and putting pressure on apex predators. Some plastic additives are known to disrupt the endocrine system when consumed; others can suppress the immune system or decrease reproductive rates. Floating debris can also absorb persistent organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT and PAHs. Aside from toxic effects,when ingested some of these are mistaken by the animal brain for estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected wildlife.
Another pathway of pollution occurs through the atmosphere. Windblown dust and debris, including plastic bags, are blown seaward from landfills and other areas. Dust from the Sahara moving around the southern periphery of the subtropical ridge moves into the Caribbean and Florida during the warm season as the ridge builds and moves northward through the subtropical Atlantic. Dust can also be attributed to a global transport from the Gobi and Taklimakan deserts across Korea, Japan, and the Northern Pacific to the Hawaiian Islands. Since 1970, dust outbreaks have worsened due to periods of drought in Africa. There is a large variability in dust transport to the Caribbean and Florida from year to year; however, the flux is greater during positive phases of the North Atlantic Oscillation. The USGS links dust events to a decline in the health of coral reefs across the Caribbean and Florida, primarily since the 1970s.
Climate change is raising ocean temperatures and raising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. These rising levels of carbon dioxide are acidifying the oceans. This, in turn, is altering aquatic ecosystems and modifying fish distributions, with impacts on the sustainability of fisheries and the livelihoods of the communities that depend on them. Healthy ocean ecosystems are also important for the mitigation of climate change.
Deep sea mining
Deep sea mining is a relatively new mineral retrieval process that takes place on the ocean floor. Ocean mining sites are usually around large areas of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents at about 1,400 – 3,700 meters below the ocean’s surface. The vents create sulfide deposits, which contain precious metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc. The deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems that take ore to the surface to be processed. As with all mining operations, deep sea mining raises questions about environmental damages to the surrounding areas
Because deep sea mining is a relatively new field, the complete consequences of full scale mining operations are unknown. However, experts are certain that removal of parts of the sea floor will result in disturbances to the benthic layer, increased toxicity of the water column and sediment plumes from tailings. Removing parts of the sea floor disturbs the habitat of benthic organisms, possibly, depending on the type of mining and location, causing permanent disturbances. Aside from direct impact of mining the area, leakage, spills and corrosion would alter the mining area’s chemical makeup.
Among the impacts of deep sea mining, sediment plumes could have the greatest impact. Plumes are caused when the tailing from mining (usually fine particles) are dumped back into the ocean, creating a cloud of particles floating in the water. Two types of plumes occur: near bottom plumes and surface plumes. Near bottom plumes occur when the tailings are pumped back down to the mining site. The floating particles increase the turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water, clogging filter-feeding apparatuses used by benthic organisms. Surface plumes cause a more serious problem. Depending on the size of the particles and water currents the plumes could spread over vast areas.The plumes could impact zooplankton and light penetration, in turn affecting the food web of the area.