The Mediterranean & Pollution – The Global Overview
The ‘Dead Med’ is a diver’s nickname for our sea. And while it’s far from dead, it could certainly do with a good clean up. Although there is more and more research being done on ocean debris, few studies exist for the Mediterranean.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now stated to be six times the size of the UK. ‘Garbage patches’ are made up of tiny fragments of plastic, usually less than 5mm in width, that are carried by prevailing currents, and collect in the vortices of the large ocean gyres (see picture). These amalgamations are found at about a foot under the surface and extend a few meters underwater. They are not, therefore, as many once believed, enormous islands of trash visible from space.
Onshore beach clean-ups in the UK bring up thousands of pieces of litter per square kilometer cleaned. Plastic litter has almost doubled since the early nineties and is largely composed of single-use carrier bags, bottles, cotton buds and tampons: lovely.
So here in Menorca how are our seas affected? What are the impacts and what can we do about them?
The Mediterranean Sea is surrounded by 18 coastal states, in which over a third of the population is concentrated along a narrow coastal strip. Some developing countries have experienced large increases in population and effective recycling and waste disposal are not yet implemented. Add to this the many rivers that channel waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Prevailing currents also transport litter from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Other sources include litter from the extensive tourism and shipping industries, the latter regularly dumping waste overboard.
Yet, despite so many pressures concentrating around a small basin like the Med, plastic waste densities are similar to those reported in many other areas worldwide. Which, in case you’re wondering, are 24.9 items/km2.
We don’t see too much large plastic waste on our beaches in the summer as these are cleaned, but after the winter storms, and if we venture to less frequented parts of the coastline, the rubbish is everywhere, the same as on every tiny island the world over.
Some Menorcan beaches are cleaned with tractor-drawn machines which essentially sieve the sand, yet the mesh is a couple of centimeters wide and small items fall through, which brings me onto nurdles or minute plastic pellets. They are the building blocks for plastic products, yet often end up in the sea and on the beaches.
These are pale yellow or white in colour, about 1-2mm in diameter. I remember collecting them from the sand by the dozen as a child.
The most common underwater debris encountered by divers here in Menorca includes lost fishing lines and tackle, nets, ropes, hooks and weights. We also see a lot of carrier bags and small pieces of plastic, likely once water bottles that have become brittle over time and disintegrate in your hand when picked up. These tiny pieces (microplastics) have been found in stomachs of sea mammals, birds, turtles and sh. Parents heartbreakingly mistake these balls for caviar on their foraging trips and feed them to their young.
On an even smaller scale, microbeads are tiny balls that are used to give texture to personal hygiene products such as toothpaste and body scrubs. They are so small that they pass through the webbing in water treatment plants and end up in the sea. Find out more about how to screen our beauty products for microbeads by downloading this app from www.beatthemicrobead.org.
So now we have the doomy, gloomy facts, here’s the positive information on how we can help: Dive Against Debris is an underwater citizen science project that aims to collect data on which types and amounts of rubbish are entering our seas. This course is offered by dive centers such as Bluewater Scuba in Cala’n Bosc, and S’Algar Diving in Sant Lluís. Taught as either part of the Advanced Open Water course, or as a Dive Specialty, certifications count towards the Master Scuba Diver and Master Scuba Diver Trainer ratings. Tons of information available at www.projectaware.org/diveagainstdebris.
For the non-divers, organizing a beach clean up might be an interesting activity. The Marine Conservation Society website is full of tips on how to do this (www.mcsuk.org/get-active/beachcleans).
Doug Allan, the Scottish wildlife cameramen best known for documentaries on polar regions and for the BBC’s Blue Planet, closed a recent spellbinding presentation with ‘All you need is less’. Those words stuck with me, and so I’d like to end this article by encouraging readers to question themselves from time to time: do I really need this product? Is there another way of achieving the same results without resorting to that blasted plastic?