Monday, March 26, 2012

Rozalia Project Intern Blog: Starting at a young age

Today's intern blog post, third in our series asking our 2012 interns to write about marine debris and a personal experience, is from Blais Hickey, an environmental studies/ecology major at UNC...

Despite growing up in landlocked Atlanta, I’ve always been drawn to the ocean.  Whether enjoying a summer beach trip to the Florida panhandle, taking a day sail on my uncle’s boat, or fishing with my cousin in his dinghy, my summers have always been full of sun, salt, and sand.  While most of these visits were spent blissfully splashing in the waves and making cities of drip castles, one of my most vivid memories actually involves beach cleaning as a child.  During one elementary school spring break, my family made the horrible mistake of joining the hoards of inebriated high school and college spring breakers that flocked to Panama City, Florida to relieve the stress of exams and college life.  Each morning, my family and I walked along the water, picking up stacks of red solo cups and bags of beer cans and bottles left over from the previous night’s celebrations.  At the time I complained to my parents that they made me clean other people’s trash when I just wanted to play.  Looking back, however, those hours spent picking up the mess in the sand got me into the habit of cleaning up trash everywhere, no matter who left it.

As I got older and progressed through school, I became more aware of the impact that what we throw out has on the environment, and especially on the oceans.  Videos of porpoises getting stuck in plastic can holders and sea turtles swallowing plastic bags that now seem oversimplified angered and confused me as a child.  I didn’t understand why anyone would be so irresponsible with their trash when it so obviously was hurting our friends, the dolphins!  

Ten years later, I participated in Sea Education Association’s Oceanographic Exploration semester.  One of the biggest focal points of SEA’s research is the presence of plastics in the oceans.  When I first arrived on campus, I imagined that these plastics were large objects such as buckets and cups floating near the coast that would be fairly simple to remove.  I quickly learned, however, that not all plastic is created equally!  

Our cruise track passed through the North Atlantic gyre, a vortex created from converging currents that creates an area of still water in the Sargasso Sea where Sargassum, plastic, and other debris accumulate.  On top of the occasional buckets, buoys, and shoes, our twice daily Neuston Tows removed all sizes of plastics, from quarter-sized fragments to broken fishing line to barely visible specs.  Water samples also revealed the presence of microplastics, too small to see with the eye, that will never be completely broken down.  These small fragments and microplastics are ingested by fish and other marine life, and the buckets can often trap fish inside.  As Andrew discussed in his post, the PCBs that leech from plastics cause biological problems for marine life all the way up the food chain.  Over my six weeks at sea, I realized that those solo cups on the beach cause many more problems than just ruining the beauty of our spring break beach trips.  Once the plastic enters the ocean, it will continue to breakdown to microplastics so small that they will never be removed.  

After sailing through the North Atlantic gyre, I have come to the rather pessimistic view that completely removing all the debris from the oceans is a monumental task that can never be accomplished.  Additionally, as long as we depend so heavily on plastics in our daily life, we cannot stop them from entering the oceans, even if accidently.  We can, however, drastically improve our situation.  We can develop our recycling programs, make goods out of reused products that aren’t plastic, and, eventually, change our country’s throwaway culture.  I cannot wait to join the Rozalia Project because I believe that programs like these will lead to the changes we need.  By doing our part to physically clean the oceans and educate children, we can definitely improve the conditions of our oceans now and for the future.  I’m hoping that my time with Rozalia will be the natural continuation of little Blais cleaning up the beach with her family and that by engaging the youth, others will become interested and do their part to help, too.  

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