The Ocean is Under Attack! The Importance of Data Tracking.
Marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed either intentionally or unintentionally disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment (NOAA, 2018). Currently, floating plastic debris makes up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments which threaten ocean health, food safety and quality, human health, coastal tourism and contribute to climate change (IUCN, 2018). The main sources of marine debris have been found to originate from urban and storm runoff, sewer overflows, beach visitors, inadequate waste disposal and waste management, industrial activities, construction and illegal dumping (IUCN, 2018).
Marine debris are often collected and trapped in ocean gyres which is a term referred to large, rotating ocean currents (NOAA, 2018). These ocean gyres create huge garbage patches that are often seen as islands of trash floating in the ocean.
Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how much harm the ocean is undergoing because most of these patches are made up of microplastics that cannot be seen by the naked eye and not all trash float causing denser debris to sink to the bottom (National Geographic, 2012).
Why not clean it up?
Cleaning up the ocean from marine debris is a laborious task with multiple challenges. Many pieces of debris are the same size as some marine species and so designing something to collect the trash could incidentally catch these species as well. In addition, with the amount of trash entering the ocean every day along with the overwhelming amount of trash already in the ocean, it would be too time consuming to simply rely on this method (National Geographic, 2012).
As a result, many environmentalists and organizations are focusing their effort on preventing more garbage from entering the ocean. Which leads us to the importance of data tracking and how this small action can lead to significant change.
Data can be used as a practical tool to understand, evaluate and create appropriate waste strategies for effective change. It allows organizations and government officials to track and monitor what are the most problematic materials, the quantity of it and its effects. It creates a baseline so that programs and regulations can be created to specifically target the problem as well as provide the ability to monitor whether an intervention is having a positive effect on the problem.
An example of the importance of data acquisition can be seen through the efforts of Nature Valley Trust programs. In 2018, the NVT created an interactive platform to take effective action toward marine debris found on Nature’s Valley beach (Groot River to Salt River) and Keurbooms Beach. The data has been able to categorize the different types of debris found and the location of problem areas. It was found that although fishermen made up only 10% of the beach users, 39% of the marine debris found were fishing related. As a result, NVT rolled out a fisherman impact study which focused on educating fishermen on various related topics and installed fisherman bins to properly manage the waste.
In addition to addressing fishermen debris, NVT co-founded Renew Able Plett, a stakeholder-driven initiative involving NPO’s, businesses and other groups that raise awareness to reduce the use of single-use plastics by local businesses. Data acquisition is maintained long after the implementation of the programs. It is conducive not only for the creation of efficient strategies that directly target the problem but as well as the evaluation of the effectiveness of the programs. To date, fisherman bins continue to be used and monitored and 55 businesses have phased out at least 2 of the top 5 single-use plastic items found on the beaches.
Nature Valley Trust understands the importance of data collection and aims to provide high quality scientific data to guide conservation and management efforts. Its long-term ecological monitoring projects continues to improve due to the collection of data to better inform local conservation authorities to support management and responsible use of the area’s resources.
Marine Debris Tracker
If you are outside South Africa, it is still possible to contribute to data acquisition and help improve the condition of the ocean. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Division and the Southeast Atlantic Marine Debris Initiative located at the University of Georgia have partnered to develop a mobile application called Marine Debris Tracker. This open source data recording app allows users to record observations of marine debris item, the quantity and its location (Marine Debris Tracker, 2020).
Since its release in 2010, the app has been used by individuals and multiple organizations as an educational tool to prevent and reduce the amount of trash entering nearby waterways. Currently, tracker users have contributed to 2 million items to the data platform (Marine Debris Tracker, 2020).
But despite being accessible to the world, most observations are recorded in North America (Tablada, 2018). Continued usage and promotion of the app is a way where collectively citizens can make a difference in how the world understands the reality of the marine debris and plastic pollution and the steps taken forward for expeditious change.
Learn more about how to use the Marine Debris Tracker here:
Happy World Ocean Day!
IUCN. (2018). Marine plastics.
Marine Debris Tracker. (2020). About.
National Geographic Society. (2012). Marine debris.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2018). What is marine debris?
Tablada, J. (2018). Marine Debris Tracker Data Analysis. [PDF file].