Students attending a marine youth forum at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre collect trash on the Tapaltos Bay shore.

Students schooled in ecology

Coastal beach litter opens eyes of high school visitors.

By FAELAN PRENTICE/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS

The soul of the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, in the heart of Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, lies in the research of scientists who work year-round studying, learning, and discovering.

In late March, I was given the opportunity to attend a Marine Youth Forum at the Bamfield centre with 17 other senior high school students from throughout western Canada.

Together we studied the changes taking place in our oceans and the effects people have on this precious marine ecosystem.

So it was that one morning, on a hike in to Tapaltos Bay that we were given the chance to put theory in action by lending a helping hand to the environment: we spent two hours removing some of the debris abandoned by humans.

Styrofoam items, 316 of them, made up more than half of the 596 pieces of trash we were able to collect in just two hours, thus preventing them from returning to the sea where they could lead to the death of numerous organisms.

Another 92 pieces of unidentified hard plastic without distinctive shapes had also washed ashore, showing what a long time they had been floating in the ocean, slowly releasing toxins and threatening marine and wildlife.

As the only species on Earth that creates something that nature is unable to digest, it is, simply put, a necessity that we at least attempt to remove some of our discarded materials. In a short, yet effective time, we collected more than 105 kilograms of trash.

When you consider that in 2006, two million plastic bottles were used every five minutes in the United States alone, the immensity of the problem begins to dawn; simple beach cleanups are not enough, even if they are an adequate starting point.

Every year 150,000 tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean by the fishing industry alone. A common household object left floating in the ocean can deliver the final blow to an animal that mistakes it for food.

This is the case for a sea turtle that may eat one of the 13 billion plastic bags produced every year, mistaking it for a jellyfish that it would normally feed upon.

As well as sea turtles, 22 per cent of cetaceans and 44 per cent of seabirds have been found to have plastics in their bodies. Birds have been discovered with their stomachs full of garbage, and when millions come together at the Kure Atoll in the Pacific Ocean to scavenge and feed their young, to whom they regurgitate their food, the indigestible human waste is  passed on to their offspring.

It gets worse: the effects do not simply sit on the surface of our seas in the form of plastics that cause internal blockages, dehydration, starvation and death.

More than a third of the common fish in the deep sea, at the base of the food chain, have been found to have plastic fragments in their stomachs.

I learned that during a process known as bio-magnification, the dangers are passed up the ecosystem and are multiplied continually until eventually humans are reached.

We are no longer at the outset of this problem; from the time man began to fish our oceans the impact has been felt by the seas around the globe. Our use of the oceans as a dumping ground has caused our world’s five major gyres, or systems of ocean currents, to be filled with garbage; slowly rotating congregations of debris that span over unimaginable expanses.

The largest, the Pacific Trash Vortex, is estimated to stretch for hundreds of kilometres.

Sadly, while organisms have been dying because of us, it is only at the point when the cycle comes full circle and begins to directly affect us, that we take note. Humankind is truly the most devastating being to have spread its effect on the planet, although we are not the most populous organism.

We may not be the species to outlast all others, but we will surely have damaged the Earth far more than any other that has ever called it home. At the rate we are going, we will likely kill off a multitude of flora and fauna that have inhabited the planet far longer than we have.

The next time I choose to throw away something because it loses its novelty and I spend money to replace it, I am going to stop and ask myself: is this deeply-entrenched consumerist psyche that has become the norm justifiable?

And in the meantime, if a group of caring teenagers is willing to collect the trash to help out their future, then perhaps a profound change of lifestyle is possible for every one of us.

Faelan Prentice lives and attends school in Victoria, B.C.