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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.

 

© 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. Two to three times1 as much oil is carried out to sea via runoff from our roads, rivers and drainpipes. Tweet this fact »

 

© tunart

More plastic than fish

Up to 12 million metric tons: That’s how much plastic we dump into the oceans each year.2 That’s about 26 billion pounds — or the equivalent of more than 100,000 blue whales — every single year. By 2050, ocean plastic will outweigh all of the ocean’s fish.3 Tweet this fact »

 

© 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 trash4 and covers an area twice the size of Texas. Tweet this fact »

 

© Amos Nachoum 2005/Marine Photobank

Plastic poses a double danger

Ocean plastic can be broken into smaller pieces — known as microplastics — by sun exposure and wave action, after which it can find its way into the food chain. When it eventually degrades (which can take hundreds of years in the case of a plastic bottle5), the process releases chemicals that further contaminate the sea. Tweet this fact »

 

© Jessica Scranton

Indonesia, India top the trash tally

More plastic in the ocean comes from Indonesia and India than anywhere else6 — together, they contribute more plastic to the world's coastal environments than the next seven countries combined, including the United States, which ranks third on the list. Tweet this fact »

 

 

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© Robin Moore

Pollution is in fashion (literally)

With each load of laundry, more than 700,000 synthetic microfibers7 can be washed into our waterways. Unlike natural materials such as cotton or wool, these plasticized fibers do not break down. One estimate puts the number of plastic microfibers in the ocean at 4 billion per square kilometer.8 Tweet this fact »

 

© Keith A. Ellenbogen

Tons of trash sits on the bottom

As unsightly as ocean pollution is, what we can’t see may be worse: Scientists estimate that some 14 million metric tons of ocean garbage9 actually rests on the seafloor, meaning we’re unlikely to ever be able to clean it up. Tweet this fact »

 

© Conservation International/photo by 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 decompose, 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.10 Tweet this fact »

 

© Burt Jones and Maurine Shimlock

The number of dead zones is growing

In 2004, scientists counted 146 hypoxic zones11 (areas of such low oxygen concentration that animal life suffocates and dies) in the world’s oceans. By 2008, that number jumped to more than 400.12 In 2017, in the Gulf of Mexico, oceanographers detected a dead zone nearly the size of New Jersey13 — the largest dead zone ever measured at the time. Tweet this fact »

 

© 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 shells14, decreasing their likelihood of survival, upsetting the food chain and impacting the multibillion-dollar shellfish industry. Tweet this fact »

 

© 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.15 These animals are a vital food source for tuna, sharks, sea turtles and other creatures. Tweet this fact »

 

 

© CI/photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Our solutions

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.

Since 2004, we've worked with partners in eight countries to conserve marine life in four key areas: the Abrolhos Seascape in Brazil; the Bird’s Head Seascape in Indonesia; the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador; and the Sulu-Sulawesi Seascape in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

 

References

  1. Oil in the Sea III: Inputs, Fates, and Effects. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2003. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10388.
  2. Jambeck, J. R., Geyer, R., Wilcox, C., Siegler, T. R., Perryman, M., Andrady, A., Narayan, R., & Law, K. L. (2015). Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. In Science (Vol. 347, Issue 6223, pp. 768–771). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1260352
  3. World Economic Forum. (2016). The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics. https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_New_Plastics_Economy.pdf
  4. Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F. et al. Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Sci Rep 8, 4666 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-22939-w
  5. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Marine debris is everyone's problem. https://www.whoi.edu/fileserver.do?id=107364&pt=2&p=88817
  6. Law, K. L., Starr, N., Siegler, T. R., Jambeck, J. R., Mallos, N. J., & Leonard, G. H. (2020). The United States’ contribution of plastic waste to land and ocean. In Science Advances (Vol. 6, Issue 44). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd0288
  7. Napper, I. E., & Thompson, R. C. (2016). Release of synthetic microplastic plastic fibres from domestic washing machines: Effects of fabric type and washing conditions. In Marine Pollution Bulletin (Vol. 112, Issues 1–2, pp. 39–45). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2016.09.025
  8. Parker, L. (2022, June). Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Questions Remain. National Geographic. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/ocean-trash-525-trillion-pieces-and-counting-big-questions-remain
  1. Barrett, J., Chase, Z., Zhang, J., Holl, M. M. B., Willis, K., Williams, A., Hardesty, B. D., & Wilcox, C. (2020). Microplastic Pollution in Deep-Sea Sediments From the Great Australian Bight. In Frontiers in Marine Science (Vol. 7). Frontiers Media SA. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.576170
  2. National Ocean Service. Nutrients: Pollution Tutorial. U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/education/tutorial_pollution//010nutrients.html
  3. DYBAS, C. L. (2005). Dead Zones Spreading in World Oceans. In BioScience (Vol. 55, Issue 7, p. 552). Oxford University Press (OUP). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2005)055[0552:dzsiwo]2.0.co;2
  4. Diaz, R. J., & Rosenberg, R. (2008). Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems. In Science (Vol. 321, Issue 5891, pp. 926–929). American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1156401
  5. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2017, August). Gulf of Mexico ‘dead zone’ is the largest ever measured. U.S. Department of Commerce. https://www.noaa.gov/media-release/gulf-of-mexico-dead-zone-is-largest-ever-measured
  6. Bullard, E. M., Torres, I., Ren, T., Graeve, O. A., & Roy, K. (2021). Shell mineralogy of a foundational marine species, Mytilus californianus , over half a century in a changing ocean. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 118, Issue 3). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2004769118
  7. Weilgart, L. 2018. The impact of ocean noise pollution on fish and invertebrates. Report for OceanCare, Switzerland. 34 pp. https://www.oceancare.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/OceanNoise_FishInvertebrates_May2018.pdf