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Ocean pollution:
11 facts you need to know

The ocean is the origin and the engine of all life on this planet — and it is under threat.

A big part of the problem: pollution.

So how does trash get into the ocean? It’s dumped, pumped, spilled, leaked and even washed out with our laundry. Each year, we expose the world’s waterways to an increasing variety of pollutants — plastic debris, chemical runoff, crude oil and more.

Fortunately, it’s not too late to clean up our act. Share the dirty truth about ocean pollution and help make a difference.

  1. Oil drill at sunset © VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm

    Oil spills aren't the big(gest) problem.
    Headline-grabbing oil spills account for just 12 percent of the oil in our oceans. Three times as much oil is carried out to sea via runoff from our roads, rivers and drainpipes.


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  2. Trash on the beach © tunart

    More plastic than fish.
    Eight million metric tons: That’s how much plastic we dump into the oceans each year. That’s about 17.6 billion pounds — or the equivalent of nearly 57,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.


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  3. Piles of trash accumulate around a mangrove on the north coast of Ile de La Gonave, Haiti. © Robin Moore

    5 garbage patches.
    There’s so much junk at sea, the debris has formed giant garbage patches. There are five of them around the world, and the largest — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — includes an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of trash and covers an area twice the size of Texas.


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  4. A scuba diver removes discarded trash and fishing gear from a coral reef in Brazil. © Amos Nachoum 2005/Marine Photobank

    Plastic poses a double danger.
    Ocean trash can be broken into smaller pieces — known as microplastic — by sun exposure and wave action, after which it can find its way into the food chain. When it eventually degrades (which takes 400 years for most plastic), the process releases chemicals that further contaminate the sea.


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  5. Clean water from the Gunung National Park is polluted by the time it reaches Jakarta. © Jessica Scranton

    China, Indonesia top the trash tally.
    More plastic in the ocean comes from China and Indonesia than anywhere else — together, they account for one-third of plastic pollution. In fact, 80 percent of plastic pollution comes from just 20 countries, including the United States.


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    1. Malagasy woman hanging laundry on clothesline © Cristina Mittermeier

      Pollution is in fashion (literally).
      With each load of laundry, more than 700,000 synthetic microfibers are washed into our waterways. Unlike natural materials such as cotton or wool, these plasticized fibers do not break down. One study showed that synthetic microfibers make up as much as 85 percent of all beach trash.


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    2. A plastic bottle rests on a coral reef. © Keith A. Ellenbogen

      Most ocean trash sits on the bottom.
      As unsightly as ocean pollution is, what we can’t see may be worse: 70 percent of ocean garbage actually sinks to the seafloor, meaning we’re unlikely to ever be able to clean it up.


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    3. Algae blooms on Ouvéa beaches, usually caused by sewage being dumped directly into the ocean. © CI/Eleanor Kitchell

      Even nutrients can become harmful.
      When dumped at sea in large amounts, agricultural nutrients such as nitrogen can stimulate the explosive growth of algae. When the algae decomposes, oxygen in the surrounding waters is consumed, creating a vast dead zone that can result in mass die-offs of fish and other marine life.


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    4. Scuba divers find dead fish on sea floor. © Burt Jones & Maurine Shimlock

      The number of dead zones is growing.
      In 2004, scientists counted 146 hypoxic zones (areas of such low oxygen concentration that animal life suffocates and dies) in the world’s oceans. By 2008, that number jumped to 405. In 2017, in the Gulf of Mexico, oceanographers detected a dead zone nearly the size of New Jersey — the largest dead zone ever measured.


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    5. A giant clam and coralline algae at Rose Atoll © Wendy Cover/NOAA

      The oceans are losing mussel mass.
      One effect of greenhouse emissions is increased ocean acidification, which makes it more difficult for bivalves such as mussels, clams and oysters to form shells, decreasing their likelihood of survival, upsetting the food chain and impacting the multibillion-dollar shellfish industry.


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    6. ​​Cargo ships at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal© Ramon Lepage

      We’re making a racket down there.
      Noise pollution generated by shipping and military activity can cause cellular damage to a class of invertebrates that includes jellyfish and anemones. These animals are a vital food source for tuna, sharks, sea turtles and other creatures.​​​


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          Conservation International has spearheaded the creation of millions of square miles of marine protected areas — internationally recognized areas of the sea in which human activities, including fishing and shipping, are sustainably managed. We've also pioneered the Seascapes approach, partnering with local decision-makers to sustainably manage large, multiple-use ocean areas.

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