How one Bay Area team is responding to increasing threat of plastic pollution to world's oceans

BySpencer Christian and Tim Didion KGO logo
Saturday, March 18, 2023
Bay Area team responds to increasing plastic pollution to oceans
Here's how one Bay Area team is responding to the increasing threat of plastic pollution to the world's oceans.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- It's a startling reminder, often hidden from our collective view. A cargo hold full of debris and plastic plucked from a floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean known as the North Pacific Gyre. We got a close-up look last year when the recovery ship KWAI docked in Sausalito.

It was a mission organized by the Ocean Voyages Institute. Mary Crowley is the executive director.

"We started doing it to learn about what was out there, and to figure out the best ways to collect it. And now we're doing it to kind of create change, to create a habitat where the ocean life isn't being killed," Crowley said.

And the urgency of the Institute's work is coming into sharper focus this month with a new report on the rapid increase of plastic pollution spreading across the world's oceans, jumping from an estimated 16 trillion pieces in 2005 to more than 171 trillion pieces of plastic today. That is a ten-fold plus increase.

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"Because our ocean globally has been used as a garbage pail for hundreds of years. And, you know, plastics started, what about 60 years ago, so it really has accumulated in that time and plastic production continues to go up in the world every year," Crowley said.

While the plastics are often collecting in distant oceans, the effects can reach Bay Area shores with tragic consequences.

Teams at the Marine Mammal Center routinely rescue sea-going animals, injured or entangled in the debris.

Adam Ratner is the director of conservation education.

"Every animal is vulnerable to ocean trash. It's one of the things that's so dangerous about this, what we see at the Marine Mammal Center is we see a lot of California sea lions, we see elephant seals, we see harbor seals along our coastline," Ratner said.

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Another recent study led by Bay Area researchers also documented the enormous volume of microplastics being ingested by whales migrating along our coast. But there are signs that the international community is waking up to the threat. A growing list of countries is expected to sign on to the new United Nations High Seas Treaty.

The goal: to protect more than a quarter of the world's oceans, considered international waters.

"So plastic doesn't know any boundaries. So even if we do already have some policies in place in San Francisco and Marin County and other places, we're still seeing trash that's building up all around the world. And that is having an impact on marine mammals and other marine life," Ratner said.

It is an impact likely to become more severe, without a coordinated international effort.

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