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The ocean covers over 70 percent of our planet’s surface, and these bodies of water are a major target for pollution. From coral to plankton to sea turtles to jellyfish, our marine ecosystems suffer as more harmful substances encroach on their environment. Learn more about the causes and effects of ocean pollution and ways to reduce it.

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What Is Ocean Pollution?

Ocean pollution (also called marine pollution) is the buildup of harmful substances in the Earth’s water systems, including oil, plastics, debris, industrial or agricultural waste, chemicals, and even noise. These harmful substances result from human activities, and interfere with marine organisms, and upset the balance of the Earth’s ecosystem.

What Causes Ocean Pollution?

There are several top contributing factors when it comes to ocean pollution:

  • Land runoff. One of the most significant sources of oceanic pollution is runoff, which occurs when rivers, rainwater, floods, and other water sources carry pollutants from inland out to the ocean. These pollutants range from motor oil to mining waste to soil soaked with toxic chemicals, all harmful to the marine environment.
  • Wind and weather. The wind often picks up trash and debris, carrying it over miles and miles—and some of these objects end up in the ocean. Also called atmospheric pollution, windborne litter results in many plastics and other waste in our oceans. One notable example of the amount of marine debris in our oceans is the Great Pacific garbage patch, a vast conglomeration (or “gyre”) of trash trapped in ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean. According to researchers’ estimates, the floating garbage pile is around 600,000 square miles (twice the size of Texas), made up of approximately a hundred thousand metric tons of plastic, wood pulp, and other contaminants.
  • Ships. While most ocean pollution starts on land, some ocean pollution originates in the water, especially with ships. These vessels often discharge oil, lose cargo, leak cargo residue, and contribute to noise pollution since noise travels further underwater than above it. This onslaught of noise creates a complex environment for communication between underwater animals.
  • Offshore drilling. Deep-sea mining and oil drilling are two significant contributors to ocean pollution, increasing the water column’s toxicity, creating sediment plumes, destroying the seafloor, and creating the possibility for a massive oil spill. For example, in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig’s failure caused 210 million US gallons of oil to be discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.
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What Are the Effects of Ocean Pollution?

  • Disrupts marine life. Ocean pollution reduces biodiversity, creating an imbalanced marine ecosystem. Many marine mammals, fisheries, and seabirds face significant harm or mortal injury from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris, being covered in oil, or eating plants or prey poisoned by contaminants. Additionally, noise pollution from ships and drilling activities makes it harder for marine wildlife to communicate and find mates.
  • Interferes with coral reefs. Coral reefs protect coastlines from extreme weather, offer essential nutrients to some marine life, and contain medicinal properties used to develop medicine to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and arthritis. Corals require precise conditions to thrive, and ocean pollution can heavily alter the water parameters around reefs. Many corals cannot produce new polyps with conditions far outside of the ideal and may begin to die off slowly.
  • Causes eutrophication. Fertilizers and minerals can build up in the ocean, oversaturating it with nutrients in a phenomenon known as eutrophication. In eutrophic areas, harmful algal blooms grow quickly, blocking out light for fish and plants, and dangerous anaerobic pockets (“dead zones”) can form in the presence of too many oxygen-depleting chemicals.
  • Increases acidity. As climate change continues, the carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere continue to rise. As the oceans absorb this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, they slowly rise in acidity. The process, called acidification, is vital to corals and shellfish, who rely on particular acidity levels to form new growths and strengthen their shells.
  • Can introduce toxins into the human diet. When marine animals live and eat in polluted ocean water, their bodies and tissues begin to absorb the pollution in a process called bioaccumulation. Fish, shellfish, and other organisms in the food chain absorb and consume microplastics, heavy metals, and pesticides, which can make them too toxic to consume. This pollution puts the human population at risk, especially those who depend on the world’s oceans for a consistent food source.

6 Ways to Reduce Ocean Pollution

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Here are some practical ways that you can help reduce ocean pollution:

  1. Use fewer plastics. Plastic pollution makes up a significant portion of the ocean’s debris because many ocean plastics can take thousands of years to break down properly. One way to help prevent plastic waste from making its way to the ocean is to reduce the number of plastic products you use in your own home, from plastic bags to food storage. Opt for glass, metal, or eco-friendly bamboo materials that take less time to decompose.
  2. Opt for multi-use products. Single-use plastics or paper goods like utensils, straws, paper towels, and plastic bottles are major contributors to ocean pollution. Swapping these products for multi-use items like metal cutlery or cloth napkins can reduce the amount of waste you generate with every meal. Keep your own reusable water bottle on hand rather than buying new bottles from the grocery store.
  3. Avoid chemical fertilizers. The chemical fertilizer that you use on your lawn or in your garden can eventually make its way to the ocean through rivers, rainwater, and other waterways—even if you live far from the coast. To reduce the chance of leaching chemical fertilizer and polluting the ocean, opt for natural fertilizer options like compost, bone meal, and aged manure.
  4. Recycle. Recycling is a process that converts used materials into new ones, keeping waste out of trash cans, gutters, and landfills, where they could be taken by wind or water to the ocean. Reach out to your local recycling plant or waste management operation for an approved list of recyclables.
  5. Lower your energy use. Companies worldwide burn fossil fuels to provide homes with electricity, heat, gas, and other comforts. Some of these fossil fuels (like oil) are harvested in the ocean, and burning them releases more carbon dioxide, which contributes to the acidification of our oceans. Reducing the amount of energy that you use daily helps reduce the number of fossil fuels we burn. Opt for energy-efficient appliances, turn lights off when not in use, be mindful of your car’s emissions, and keep your thermostat at a reasonable level.
  6. Support an environmental advocacy group. While you can do a lot on your own to reduce ocean pollution, there are many kinds of ocean pollution—from chemical pollutants to oil spills—that are hard to fight individually. Consider joining an environmental advocacy group to raise awareness on a local, national, and global scale.

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