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3.The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris a review

Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002) 842–852 www.elsevier.com/locate/marpolbul


The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review
Jos G.B. Derraik e
Ecology and Health Research Centre, Department of Public Health,Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, P.O. Box 7343, Wellington, New Zealand

Abstract The deleterious e?ects of plastic debris on the marine environment were reviewed by bringing together most of the literature published so far on the topic. A large number of marine species is known to be harmed and/or killed by plastic debris, which could jeopardize their survival, especially since many are already endangered by other forms of anthropogenic activities. Marine animals are mostly a?ected through entanglement in and ingestion of plastic litter. Other less known threats include the use of plastic debris by ‘‘invader’’ species and the absorption of polychlorinated biphenyls from ingested plastics. Less conspicuous forms, such as plastic pellets and ‘‘scrubbers’’ are also hazardous. To address the problem of plastic debris in the oceans is a di?cult task, and a variety of approaches are urgently required. Some of the ways to mitigate the problem are discussed. ? 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Plastic debris; Pollution; Marine environment

1. Introduction Human activities are responsible for a major decline of the world’s biological diversity, and the problem is so critical that combined human impacts could have accelerated present extinction rates to 1000–10,000 times the natural rate (Lovejoy, 1997). In the oceans, the threat to marine life comes in various forms, such as overexploitation and harvesting, dumping of waste, pollution, alien species, land reclamation, dredging and global climate change (Beatley, 1991; National Research Council, 1995; Irish and Norse, 1996; Ormond et al., 1997; Tickel, 1997; Snelgrove, 1999). One particular form of human impact constitutes a major threat to marine life: the pollution by plastic debris. 1.1. Plastic debris Plastics are synthetic organic polymers, and though they have only existed for just over a century (Gorman, 1993), by 1988 in the United States alone, 30 million tons of plastic were produced annually (O’Hara et al., 1988). The versatility of these materials has lead to a great increase in their use over the past three decades,


Fax: +64-4-389-5319. E-mail address: jderraik@wnmeds.ac.nz (J.G.B. Derraik).

and they have rapidly moved into all aspects of everyday life (Hansen, 1990; Laist, 1987). Plastics are lightweight, strong, durable and cheap (Laist, 1987), characteristics that make them suitable for the manufacture of a very wide range of products. These same properties happen to be the reasons why plastics are a serious hazard to the environment (Pruter, 1987; Laist, 1987). Since they are also buoyant, an increasing load of plastic debris is being dispersed over long distances, and when they ?nally settle in sediments they may persist for centuries (Hansen, 1990; Ryan, 1987b; Goldberg, 1995, 1997). The threat of plastics to the marine environment has been ignored for a long time, and its seriousness has been only recently recognised (Stefatos et al., 1999). Fergusson (1974) for instance, then a member of the Council of the British Plastics Federation and a Fellow of the Plastics Institute, stated that ‘‘plastics litter is a very small proportion of all litter and causes no harm to the environment except as an eyesore’’. His comments not only illustrates how the deleterious environmental e?ects of plastics were entirely overlooked, but also that, apparently, even the plastics industry failed to predict the great boom in the production and use of plastics of the past 30 years. In the marine environment, the perceived abundance of marine life and the vastness of the oceans have lead to the dismissal of the proliferation of plastic debris as a potential hazard (Laist, 1987).

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J.G.B. Derraik / Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 (2002) 842–852


The literature on marine debris leaves no doubt that plastics make-up most of the marine litter worldwide (Table 1). Though the methods were not assessed to ensure that the results were comparable, Table 1 clearly indicates the predominance of plastics amongst the marine litter, and its proportion consistently varies between 60% and 80% of the total marine debris (Gregory and Ryan, 1997). It is not possible to obtain reliable estimates of the amount of plastic debris that reaches the marine environment, but the quantities are nevertheless quite substantial. In 1975 the world’s ?shing ?eet alone dumped into the sea approximately 135,400 tons of plastic ?shing gear and 23,600 tons of synthetic packaging material (Cawthorn, 1989; DOC, 1990). Horsman (1982) estimated that merchant ships dump 639,000 plastic con-

tainers each day around the world, and ships are therefore, a major source of plastic debris (Shaw, 1977; Shaw and Mapes, 1979). Recreational ?shing and boats are also responsible for dumping a considerable amount of marine debris, and according to the US Coast Guard they dispose approximately 52% of all rubbish dumped in US waters (UNESCO, 1994). Plastic materials also end up in the marine environment when accidentally lost, carelessly handled (Wilber, 1987) or left behind by beachgoers (Pruter, 1987). They also reach the sea as litter carried by rivers and municipal drainage systems (Pruter, 1987; Williams and Simmons, 1997). There are major inputs of plastic litter from land-based sources in densely populated or industrialized areas (Pruter, 1987; Gregory, 1991), most in the form of packaging. A study on Halifax Harbour

Table 1 Proportion of plastics among marine debris worldwide (per number of items) Locality 1992 International Coastal Cleanups St. Lucia, Caribbean Dominica, Caribbean Curacao, Caribbean ? Bay of Biscay, NE Atlantic NW Mediterranean French Mediterranean Coast European coasts Caribbean coast of Panama Georgia, USA 5 Mediterranean beaches 50 South African beaches 88 sites in Tasmania Argentina 9 Sub-Antarctic Islands South Australia Kodiak Is, Alaska Tokyo Bay, Japan North Paci?c Ocean Mexico Transkei, South Africa National Parks in USA Mediterranean Sea Cape Cod, USA 4 North Atlantic harbors, USA Is. Beach State Park, New Jersey, USA Halifax Harbour, Canada Price Edward Is., Southern Ocean Gough Is., Southern Ocean Heard Is., Southern Ocean Macquire Is., Southern Ocean New Zealand Two gulfs in W. Greece South German Bight Bird Is., South Georgia, Southern Ocean Fog Bay, N. Australia South Wales, UK Litter type Shoreline Beach Beach Beach Seabed Seabed Deep sea ?oor Sea ?oor Shoreline Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Seabed Seabed Surface waters Beach Beach Beach Surface waters Beach/harbour Harbour Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Beach Seabed Beach Beach Beach Beach Percentage of debris items represented by plastics 59 51 36 40/64 92 77 >70 >70 82 57 60–80 >90 65 37–72 51–88 62 47–56 80–85 86 60 83 88 60–70 90 73–92 73 54 88 84 51 71 75 79–83 75 88a 32 63 Source Anon (1990) Corbin and Singh (1993) Corbin and Singh (1993) Debrot et al. (1999) Galgani et al. (1995a) Galgani et al. (1995b) Galgani et al. (1996) Galgani et al. (2000) Garrity and Levings (1993) Gilligan et al. (1992) Golik (1997) Gregory and Ryan (1997) Gregory and Ryan (1997) Gregory and Ryan (1997) Gregory and Ryan (1997) Gregory and Ryan (1997) Hess et al. (1999) Kanehiro et al. (1995) Laist (1987) Lara-Dominguez et al. (1994) Madzena and Lasiak (1997) Manski et al. (1991) Morris (1980) Ribic et al. (1997) Ribic et al. (1997) Ribic (1998) Ross et al. (1991) Ryan (1987b) Ryan (1987b) Slip and Burton (1991) Slip and Burton (1991) Smith and Tooker (1990) Stefatos et al. (1999) Vauk and Schrey (1987) Walker et al. (1997) Whiting (1998) Williams and Tudor (2001)

Results are arranged in alphabetical order by author. a 76% of total consisted of synthetic line for long-line ?sheries.


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in Canada, for instance, showed that 62% of the total litter in the harbour originated from recreation and land-based sources (Ross et al., 1991). In contrast, in beaches away from urban areas (e.g. Alaska) most of the litter is made up of ?shing debris. Not only the aesthetically distasteful plastic litter, but also less conspicuous small plastic pellets and granules are a threat to marine biota. The latter are found in large quantities on beaches (Gregory, 1978, 1989; Shiber, 1979, 1982, 1987; Redford et al., 1997), and are the raw material for the manufacture of plastic products that end up in the marine environment through accidental spillage during transport and handling, not as litter or waste as other forms of plastics (Gregory, 1978; Shiber, 1979; Redford et al., 1997). Their sizes usually vary from 2–6 mm, though occasionally much larger ones can be found (Gregory, 1977, 1978). Plastic pellets can be found across the Southwest Paci?c in surprisingly high quantities for remote and non-industrialised places such as Tonga, Rarotonga and Fiji (Gregory, 1999). In New Zealand beaches they are found in quite considerable amounts, in counts of over 100,000 raw plastic granules per meter of coast (Gregory, 1989), with greatest concentration near important industrial centres (Gregory, 1977). Their durability in the marine environment is still uncertain but they seem to last from 3 to 10 years, and additives can probably extend this period to 30–50 years (Gregory, 1978). Unfortunately, the dumping of plastic debris into the ocean is an increasing problem. For instance, surveys carried out in South African beaches 5 years apart, showed that the densities of all plastic debris have increased substantially (Ryan and Moloney, 1990). In Panama, experimentally cleared beaches regained about 50% of their original debris load after just 3 months (Garrity and Levings, 1993). Even subantarctic islands are becoming increasingly a?ected by plastic debris, especially ?shing lines (Walker et al., 1997). Benton (1995) surveyed islands in the South Paci?c and got to the alarming conclusion that beaches in remote areas had a comparable amount of garbage to a beach in the industrialized western world.

ment. Robards et al. (1995) examined the gut content of thousands of birds in two separate studies and found that the ingestion of plastics by seabirds had signi?cantly increased during the 10–15 years interval between studies. A study done in the North Paci?c (Blight and Burger, 1997) found plastic particles in the stomachs of 8 of the 11 seabird species caught as bycatch. The list of a?ected species indicates that marine debris are a?ecting a signi?cant number of species (Laist, 1997). It a?ects at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species (Laist, 1997). The problem may be highly underestimated as most victim are likely to go undiscovered over vast ocean areas, as they either sink or are eaten by predators (Wolfe, 1987). There is also potential danger to marine ecosystems from the accumulation of plastic debris on the sea ?oor. According to Kanehiro et al. (1995) plastics made up 80–85% of the seabed debris in Tokyo Bay, an impressive ?gure considering that most plastic debris are buoyant. The accumulation of such debris can inhibit the gas exchange between the overlying waters and the pore waters of the sediments, and the resulting hypoxia or anoxia in the benthos can interfere with the normal ecosystem functioning, and alter the make-up of life on the sea ?oor (Goldberg, 1994). Moreover, as for pelagic organisms, benthic biota is likewise subjected to entanglement and ingestion hazards (Hess et al., 1999). 2.1. Ingestion of plastics A study done on 1033 birds collected o? the coast of North Carolina in the USA found that individuals from 55% of the species recorded had plastic particles in their guts (Moser and Lee, 1992). The authors obtained evidence that some seabirds select speci?c plastic shapes and colors, mistaking them for potential prey items. Shaw and Day (1994) came to the same conclusions, as they studied the presence of ?oating plastic particles of di?erent forms, colors and sizes in the North Paci?c, ?nding that many are signi?cantly under-represented. Carpenter et al. (1972) examined various species of ?sh with plastic debris in their guts and found that only white plastic spherules had been ingested, indicating that they feed selectively. A similar pattern of selective ingestion of white plastic debris was found for loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) in the Central Mediterranean (Gramentz, 1988). Among seabirds, the ingestion of plastics is directly correlated to foraging strategies and technique, and diet (Azzarello and Van-Vleet, 1987; Ryan, 1987a; Moser and Lee, 1992; Laist, 1987, 1997). For instance, planktivores are more likely to confuse plastic pellets with their prey than do piscivores, therefore the former have a higher incidence of ingested plastics (Azzarello and Van-Vleet, 1987).

2. The threats from plastics pollution to marine biota There is still relatively little information on the impact of plastics pollution on the ocean’s ecosystems (Quayle, 1992; Wilber, 1987). There is however an increasing knowledge about their deleterious impacts on marine biota (Goldberg, 1995). The threats to marine life are primarily mechanical due to ingestion of plastic debris and entanglement in packaging bands, synthetic ropes and lines, or drift nets (Laist, 1987, 1997; Quayle, 1992). Since the use of plastics continues to increase, so does the amount of plastics polluting the marine environ-

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Ryan (1988) performed an experiment with domestic chickens (Gallus domesticus) to establish the potential e?ects of ingested plastic particles on seabirds. They were fed with polyethylene pellets and the results indicated that ingested plastics reduce meal size by reducing the storage volume of the stomach and the feeding stimulus. He concluded that seabirds with large plastic loads have reduced food consumption, which limits their ability to lay down fat deposits, thus reducing ?tness. Connors and Smith (1982) had previously reached the same conclusion, as their study indicated that the ingestion of plastic particles hindered formation of fat deposits in migrating red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius), adversely a?ecting long-distance migration and possibly their reproductive e?ort on breeding grounds. Spear et al. (1995) however, provided probably the ?rst solid evidence for a negative relationship between number of plastic particles ingested and physical condition (body weight) in seabirds from the tropical Paci?c. Other harmful e?ects from the ingestion of plastics include blockage of gastric enzyme secretion, diminished feeding stimulus, lowered steroid hormone levels, delayed ovulation and reproductive failure (Azzarello and Van-Vleet, 1987). The ingestion of plastic debris by small ?sh and seabirds for instance, can reduce food uptake, cause internal injury and death following blockage of intestinal tract (Carpenter et al., 1972; Rothstein, 1973; Ryan, 1988; Zitko and Hanlon, 1991). The extent of the harm, however, will vary among species. Procellariiformes for example, are more vulnerable due to their inability to regurgitate ingested plastics (Furness, 1985; Azzarello and Van-Vleet, 1987). Laist (1987) and Fry et al. (1987) observed that adults that manage to regurgitate plastic particles could pass them onto the chicks during feeding. The chicks of Laysan albatrosses (Diomedea immutabilis) in the Hawaiian Islands for instance, are unable to regurgitate such materials which accumulate in their stomachs, becoming a signi?cant source of mortality, as 90% of the chicks surveyed had some sort of plastic debris in their upper GI tract (Fry et al., 1987). Even Antarctic and sub-Antarctic seabirds are subjected to this hazard (Slip et al., 1990). Wilson’s storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus) for instance, pick up plastic debris while wintering in other areas (Van Franeker and Bell, 1988). A whitefaced storm-petrel (Pelagodroma marina) found dead at the isolated Chatham Islands (New Zealand) at a breeding site, had no food in its stomach while its gizzard was packed with plastic pellets (Bourne and Imber, 1982). The harm from ingestion of plastics is nevertheless not restricted to seabirds. Polythene bags drifting in ocean currents look much like the prey items targeted by turtles (Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986; Gramentz, 1988; Bugoni et al., 2001). There is evidence that their survival

is being hindered by plastic debris (Duguy et al., 1998), with young sea turtles being particularly vulnerable (Carr, 1987). Balazs (1985) listed 79 cases of turtles whose guts were full of various sorts of plastic debris, and O’Hara et al. (1988) cited a turtle found in New York that had swallowed 540 m of ?shing line. Oesophagus and stomach contents were examined from 38 specimens of the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) on the south of Brazil, 23 of which (60.5%) had ingested anthropogenic debris, mainly plastics (Bugoni et al., 2001). Among other C. mydas washed ashore in Florida, 56% had anthropogenic debris in their digestive tracts (Bjorndal et al., 1994). Toms et al. a (2002) found that 75.9% of 54 loggerhead sea turtles (C. caretta) captured by ?shermen had plastic debris in their digestive tracts. At least 26 species of cetaceans have been documented to ingest plastic debris (Baird and Hooker, 2000). A young male pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps) stranded alive in Texas, USA, died in a holding tank 11 days later (Tarpley and Marwitz, 1993). The necropsy showed that the ?rst two stomach compartments were completely occluded by plastic debris (garbage can liner, a bread wrapper, a corn chip bag and two other pieces of plastic sheeting). The death of an endangered West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) in 1985 in Florida was apparently caused by a large piece of plastic that blocked its digestive tract (Laist, 1987). Deaths of the also endangered Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) have too been blamed on plastic debris in their guts (Beck and Barros, 1991). Secchi and Zarzur (1999) blamed the fate of a dead Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris) washed ashore in Brazil to a bundle of plastic threads found in the animals’ stomach. Coleman and Wehle (1984) and Baird and Hooker (2000) cited other cetaceans that have been reported with ingested plastics, such as the killer whale (Orcinus orca). Some species of ?sh o? the British coast were found to contain plastic cups within their guts that would eventually lead to their death (Anon, 1975). In the Bristol Channel in the summer of 1973, 21% of the ?ounders (Platichthyes ?esus) were found to contain polystyrene spherules (Kartar et al., 1976). The same study found, that in some areas, 25% of sea snails (Liparis liparis) (a ?sh, despite its common name) were heavily contaminated by such debris. In the New England coast, USA, the same type of spherules were found in 8 out of 14 ?sh species examined, and in some species 33% of individuals were contaminated (Carpenter et al., 1972). 2.2. Plastics ingestion and polychlorinated biphenyls Over the past 20 years polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have increasingly polluted marine food webs,


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and are prevalent in seabirds (Ryan et al., 1988). Though their adverse e?ects may not always be apparent, PCBs lead to reproductive disorders or death, they increase risk of diseases and alter hormone levels (Ryan et al., 1988; Lee et al., 2001). These chemicals have a detrimental e?ect on marine organisms even at very low levels and plastic pellets could be a route for PCBs into marine food chains (Carpenter and Smith, 1972; Carpenter et al., 1972; Rothstein, 1973; Zitko and Hanlon, 1991; Mato et al., 2001). Ryan et al. (1988) studying great shearwaters (Pu?nus gravis), obtained evidence that PCBs in the birds’ tissues were derived from ingested plastic particles. Their study presented the ?rst indication that seabirds can assimilate chemicals from plastic particles in their stomachs, indicating a dangerous pathway for potentially harmful pollutants. Bjorndal et al. (1994) worked with sea turtles and came to a similar conclusion, that the absorption of toxins as sublethal e?ects of debris ingestion has an unknown, but potentially great negative e?ect on their demography. Plastic debris can be a source of other contaminants besides PCBs. According to Zitko (1993) low molecular weight compounds from polystyrene particles are leached by seawater, and the fate and e?ects of such compounds on aquatic biota are not known. 2.3. Entanglement in plastic debris Entanglement in plastic debris, especially in discarded ?shing gear, is a very serious threat to marine animals. According to Schrey and Vauk (1987) entanglement accounts for 13–29% of the observed mortality of gannets (Sula bassana) at Helgoland, German Bight. Entanglement also a?ects the survival of the endangered sea turtles (Carr, 1987), but it is a particular problem for marine mammals, such as fur seals, which are both curious and playful (Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986). Young fur seals are attracted to ?oating debris and dive and roll about in it (Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986). They will approach objects in the water and often poke their heads into loops and holes (Fowler, 1987; Laist, 1987). Though the plastic loops can easily slip onto their necks, the lie of the long guard hairs prevents the strapping from slipping o? (Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986). Many seal pups grow into the plastic collars, and in time as it tightens, the plastic severs the seal’s arteries or strangles it (Weisskopf, 1988). Ironically, once the entangled seal dies and decomposes, the plastic band is free to be picked up by another victim (DOC, 1990; Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986), as some plastic articles may take 500 years to decompose (Gorman, 1993; UNESCO, 1994). Once an animal is entangled, it may drown, have its ability to catch food or to avoid predators impaired, or

incur wounds from abrasive or cutting action of attached debris (Laist, 1987, 1997; Jones, 1995). According to Feldkamp et al. (1989) entanglement can greatly reduce ?tness, as it leads to a signi?cant increase in energetic costs of travel. For the northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), for instance, they stated that net fragments over 200 g could result in 4-fold increase in the demand of food consumption to maintain body condition. The decline in the populations of the northern sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus), endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) (Henderson, 1990, 2001) and northern fur seal (Fowler, 1987) seems at least aggravated by entanglement of young animals in lost or discarded nets and packing bands. In the Pribilo? Islands alone, in the Bering Sea west of Alaska, the percentage of northern fur seals returning to rookeries entangled in plastic bands rose from nil in 1969 to 38% in 1973 (Mattlin and Cawthorn, 1986). The population in 1976 was declining at a rate of 4–6% a year, and scientists estimated that up to 40,000 fur seals a year were being killed by plastic entanglement (Weisskopf, 1988). A decline due to entanglement also seems to be occurring with Antarctic fur seals (Arctocephalus gazella) (Croxall et al., 1990). Pemberton et al. (1992) and Jones (1995) both reported similar concern for Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus). At South-east Farallon Island, Northern California, a survey from 1976–1988 observed 914 pinnipeds entangled in or with body constrictions from synthetic materials (Hanni and Pyle, 2000). Lost or abandoned ?shing nets pose a particular great risk (Jones, 1995). These ‘‘ghost nets’’ continue to catch animals even if they sink or are lost on the seabed (Laist, 1987). In 1978, 99 dead seabirds and over 200 dead salmon were counted during the retrieval of a 1500 m ghost net south of the Aleutian Islands (DeGange and Newby, 1980). In a survey done in 1983/84 o? the coast of Japan, it was estimated that 533 fur seals were entangled and drowned in nets lost in the area (Laist, 1987). Whales are also victims, as ‘‘they sometimes lunge for schools of ?sh and surface with netting caught in their mouths or wrapped around their heads and tails’’ (Weisskopf, 1988). 2.4. Plastic ‘‘scrubbers’’ Studies (Gregory, 1996; Zitko and Hanlon, 1991) have drawn attention to an inconspicuous and previously overlooked form of plastics pollution: small fragments of plastic (usually up to 0.5 mm across) derived from hand cleaners, cosmetic preparations and airblast cleaning media. The environmental impact of these particles, as well as similar sized ?akes from degradation of larger plastic litter, has not been properly established yet.

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In New Zealand and Canada, polyethylene and polystyrene scrubber grains respectively were identi?ed in the cleansing preparations available in those markets, sometimes in substantial quantities (Gregory, 1996). In airblasting technology, polyethylene particles are used for stripping paint from metallic surfaces and cleaning engine parts, and can be recycled up to 10 times before they have to be discarded, sometimes signi?cantly contaminated by heavy metals (Gregory, 1996). Once discarded they enter into foul water or reticulate sanitary systems, and though some may be trapped during sewage treatment, most will be discharged into marine waters; and as they ?oat, they concentrate on surface waters and are dispersed by currents (Gregory, 1996). There are many possible impacts of these persistent particles on the environment (Zitko and Hanlon, 1991). For instance, heavy metals or other contaminants could be transferred to ?lter feeding organisms and other invertebrates, ultimately reaching higher trophic levels (Gregory, 1996). 2.5. Drift plastic debris: possible pathway for the invasion of alien species The introduction of alien species can have major consequences for marine ecosystems (Grassle et al., 1991). This biotic mixing is becoming a widespread problem due to human activities, and it is a potential threat to native marine biodiversity (McKinney, 1998). According to some estimates, global marine species diversity may decrease by as much as 58% if worldwide biotic mixing occurs (McKinney, 1998). Plastics ?oating at sea may acquire a fauna of various encrusting organisms such as bacteria, diatoms, algae, barnacles, hydroids and tunicates (Carpenter et al., 1972; Carpenter and Smith, 1972; Minchin, 1996; Clark, 1997). The bryozoan Membranipora tuberculata, for instance, is believed to have crossed the Tasman Sea, from Australia to New Zealand, encrusted on plastic pellets (Gregory, 1978). The same species together with another bryozoan (Electra tenella) were found on plastics washed ashore on the Florida coast, USA, and they seem to be increasing their abundance in the region by drifting on plastic debris from the Caribbean area (Winston, 1982; Winston et al., 1997). Minchin (1996) also describes barnacles that crossed the North Atlantic Ocean attached to plastic debris. Drift plastics can therefore increase the range of certain marine organisms or introduce species into an environment where they were previously absent (Winston, 1982). Gregory (1991, 1999) pointed out that the arrival of unwanted and aggressive alien taxa could be detrimental to littoral, intertidal and shoreline ecosystems. He emphasised the risk to the ?ora and fauna of conservation islands, for instance, as alien species could arrive rafted on drifting plastics.

3. Discussion and recommendations Though the seas cover the majority of our planet’s surface, far less is known about the biodiversity of marine environments then that of terrestrial systems (Ormond et al., 1997). Irish and Norse (1996) examined all 742 papers published in the journal Conservation Biology and found that only 5% focused on marine ecosystems and species, compared with 67% on terrestrial and 6% on freshwater. As a result of this disparity, marine conservation biology severely lags behind the terrestrial counterpart (Murphy and Du?us, 1996), and this gap of knowledge poses major problems for conservation of marine biodiversity and must be addressed. This study shows that there is overwhelming evidence that plastic pollution is a threat to marine biodiversity, already at risk from over?shing, climate change and other forms of anthropogenic disturbance. So far however, that evidence is basically anecdotal. There is a need for more research (especially long term monitoring) to assess the actual threat posed by plastic debris to marine species. The research information would provide input for conservation management, strengthen the basis for educational campaigns, and also provide marine scientists with better evidence that could be used to demand from the authorities more e?ort to mitigate the problem. Due to the long life of plastics on marine ecosystems, it is imperative that severe measures are taken to address the problem at both international and national levels, since even if the production and disposal of plastics suddenly stopped, the existing debris would continue to harm marine life for many decades. 3.1. Plastics pollution and legislation There have been nevertheless some attempts to promote the conservation of the world’s oceans through international legislation, such as the establishment of the 1972 Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping Wastes and Other Matter (the London Dumping Convention or LDC). The most important legislation addressing the increasing problem of marine pollution is probably the 1978 Protocol to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), which recognised that vessels present a signi?cant and controllable source of pollution into the marine environment (Lentz, 1987). The Annex V of MARPOL is the key international authority for controlling ship sources of marine debris (Ninaber, 1997), and came into e?ect in 1988 (Clark, 1997). It ‘‘restricts at sea discharge of garbage and bans at sea disposal of plastics and other synthetic materials such as ropes, ?shing nets, and plastic garbage bags with limited exceptions’’ (Pearce, 1992). More importantly, the Annex V applies to all watercraft, including small


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recreational vessels (Nee, 1990). Seventy-nine countries have so far rati?ed the Annex V (CMC, 2002), and the signatory countries are required to take steps to fully implement it. Annex V also refers to ‘‘special areas’’, including the Mediterranean Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Red Sea and the ‘‘Gulfs’’ areas, where discharge regulations are far more strict (Lentz, 1987). Nevertheless, the legislation is still widely ignored, and ships are estimated to discard 6.5 million tons per year of plastics (Clark, 1997). Observers on board foreign ?shing vessels within Australian waters, for instance, found that at least one-third of the vessels did not comply with the MARPOL regulations on the disposal of plastics (Jones, 1995). As Kirkley and McConnell (1997) pointed out, the compliance of individuals with laws is partly a question of economics. They believe most people (or companies) would not change their attitude if stopping the dumping of plastics into the ocean were economically costly. Henderson (2001) assessed the impact of Annex V and found reduction neither in the accumulation of marine debris nor in the entanglement rate of Hawaiian monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Amos (1993) and Johnson (1994) however, found that it has been of some e?ect in reducing plastic litter in the oceans. Legislation at the national level also plays an important role. Individual countries can be e?ective through their own legislation, such as laws that require degradability standards or that encourage recycling (Bean, 1987). In the USA, for instance, the Marine Plastics Pollution Research and Control Act of 1987 not only adopted Annex V, but also extended its application to US Navy vessels (Nee, 1990; Bentley, 1994). Ports and ocean carriers have to adapt to these regulations prohibiting the disposal of plastics at sea (Nee, 1990). The biggest di?culty however when it comes to legislation, is to actually enforce it in an area as vast as the world’s oceans. It is therefore essential that neighbouring countries work together in order to ensure that all vessels comply with Annex V. 3.2. Other issues and ways to prevent marine pollution Education is also a very powerful tool to address the issue, especially if it is discussed in schools. Youngsters not only can change habits with relative ease, but also be able to take their awareness into their families and the wider community, working as catalysts for change. Since land-based sources provide major inputs of plastic debris into the oceans, if a community becomes aware of the problem, and obviously willing to act upon it, it can actually make a signi?cant di?erence. The power of education should not be underestimated, and it can be more e?ective than strict laws, such as the Su?olk County Plastics Law (in New York, USA) that banned

some retail food packaging and was unsuccessful in reducing beach and roadside litter (Ross and Swanson, 1995). There may also be a need for ?nancial incentives as Ray and Grassle (1991) stressed ‘‘no e?ort to conserve biological diversity is realistic outside the economics and public policies that drive the modern world’’. There are also more complicated aspects of the problem of plastic pollution. As it could be seen as a ‘‘side-e?ect’’ of progress, those countries undergoing economic development will seek their share of growth, putting an increasing pressure on the environment. It is unlikely that such nations would take any steps to reduce the use of plastics or their disposal into the oceans, if that would compromise any short-term economic gain. Especially when nations from the developed world are being careless themselves, and still failing to comply with the requirements of Annex V. One possibility to mitigate the problem is the development and use of biodegradable and photodegradable plastics (Wolf and Feldman, 1991; Gorman, 1993). The US Navy, for instance, was working on a promising biopolymer (regenerated cellulose) for the fabrication of marine-disposable trash bags (Andrady et al., 1992). Unfortunately, the e?ects of the ?nal degradation products of those materials are not yet known, and there is the danger of substituting one problem for another (Horsman, 1985; Wolf and Feldman, 1991; Quayle, 1992). Therefore studies were being done, for example, to monitor the degradation of polymers in natural waters under real-life conditions (Mergaert et al., 1995) and assess the impact of degradation products on estuarine benthos (Doering et al., 1994). 3.3. Final remarks Ultimately, all sectors of the community should take their individual steps. Thinking globally and acting locally is a fundamental attitude to reduce such an environmental threat. A combination of legislation and the enhancement of ecological consciousness through education is likely to be the best way to solve such environmental problems. The general public and the scienti?c community have also the responsibility of ensuring that governments and businesses change their attitudes towards the problem. It is nevertheless certain that the environmental hazards that threaten the oceans’ biodiversity, such as the pollution by plastic debris, must be urgently addressed. ‘‘The last fallen mahogany would lie perceptibly on the landscape, and the last black rhino would be obvious in its loneliness, but a marine species may disappear beneath the waves unobserved and the sea would seem to roll on the same as always’’ (Ray, 1988, p. 45).

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