75 FEET UNDERWATER, CONCH REEF — At first it's hard to spot among the florid colors of the reef, but there it is: a thick, ugly rope, wrapped around barrel sponges and winding through the fragile coral garden, as out of place and unwelcome as a snake in your living room.
I'm tagging along on a "dive against debris" with Rainbow Reef Dive Center, one of the largest dive operators in the Florida Keys. Three groups of scuba divers are sweeping along Conch Reef, about five miles offshore from Key Largo, on the hunt for marine debris and trash.
Scuba divers around the world, from Oklahoma to Saudi Arabia, were participating in similar dives in late September as part of AWARE Week, a global initiative to clean up ocean debris organized by Project Aware, a nonprofit group that coordinates with volunteer divers.
Several divers go to work on the line with knives and shears, cutting it up in sections to avoid damaging the coral and stuffing the rope into mesh bags that they will haul back to the boat waiting on the surface. A loggerhead turtle making its way along the reef stops to survey the commotion before swimming away.
Modern industry and global trade has raised the standards of living for billions around the world, but the byproducts of that miracle—the packaging that wraps goods, the bottles, bags, and mass-produced doodads of convenience—are filling the oceans and the digestive tracts of the creatures that live there at a fantastic rate. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic find its way into the sea every year.
The result is that in under a century, we have come dangerously close to doing something that humans didn't even think was possible in all the previous millennia of our existence: despoiling the ocean, an area so vast and bountiful that it defies our land-bound imaginations.
By now, most everyone has heard about the giant gyre of floating trash out in the Pacific Ocean, and 32 million people have watched a YouTube video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw stuck up its nose. A pilot whale washed up in Thailand earlier this year with 17 pounds of plastic bags inside it.
In response to dire warnings from conservationists and scientists, governments have started to take action. India has passed some of the toughest anti-plastic laws in the world and pledged to eliminate single-use plastics by 2022. In the U.S., cities are banning bags and straws to cut down on single-use plastics. Major companies, eager to display their corporate responsibility, have joined in. Earlier this year, Starbucks announced it was ditching plastic straws.
Of course, as Reason pointed out, Starbucks' new strawless lids actually use more plastic to make than the old ones. Environmentalists responded that at least the lids are recyclable, unlike plastic straws, but less than 10 percent of plastic in the U.S. end up being recycled. The back-and-forth illustrated one of the fundamental issues facing those fighting ocean pollution: Can raised awareness, innovation, and policies like straw bans get us out of the mess we've created, or are we just painting the rails on a sinking ship?
In the private sector, some people are thinking bigger. The Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit run by a 24-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, has raised $35 million to set up massive floating booms in the Pacific ocean to collect plastic. If it works, the group says it could cut the size of the great Pacific garbage patch in half in five years. In September, the Ocean Cleanup towed one of its garbage collectors 300 miles off the California coast for a two-week test run.
The problem is no one, not even the Ocean Cleanup, knows if it will work, and marine scientists are skeptical. Can it survive the brutal Pacific seas without breaking up and creating even more ocean trash? (The collector, it must be noted, is made out of plastic.) Will it trap and kill marine life along with plastic bags and water bottles?
The more direct solution would be to stop trash from ending up in the ocean in the first place. Countries with poor waste management, such as China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Thailand are the leading contributors of plastic to the world's oceans, according to a 2015 study.
"Let's say you recycle 100 percent in all of North America and Europe," Ramani Narayan, a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, told National Geographic in a June cover story on ocean pollution. "You still would not make a dent on the plastics released into the oceans. If you want to do something about this, you have to go there, to these countries, and deal with the mismanaged waste."
In the pristine waters of the Florida Keys, giant rafts of plastic waste aren't an issue, but there's still no lack of work for underwater cleanup crews.
The reef is a protected area inside Florida's John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The first underwater park in the U.S., it was established in 1963 in response to the devastation right here on Conch Reef. In the early and mid-20th century, enterprising businessmen were pulling up coral with crowbars, and sometimes dynamiting the reef, to sell trinkets of coral to tourists. Today, TNT-toting plunderers aren't as much of a concern as a sneakier and more persistent foe: trash.
Abandoned "ghost" nets and lines like the ones we found can entangle and kill sea life. The heavier stuff gets tossed by storm surges and bashes against the reefs.
"We've found so many crazy things, especially after [Hurricane] Irma," Rainbow Reef dive instructor Annie Huebner says. "We've found refrigerators, we found the top of a golf cart a couple weeks ago. We found a basketball hoop."
"A big problem here in the Florida Keys is the lobster traps," she continues. "Before the hurricane, the fishermen didn't really have time to go get them, so there's big clusters of traps everywhere. The rope wraps around coral, and the traps themselves damage the coral polyps. It's doing a colossal amount of damage to the reefs."
The dive operators at Rainbow Reef say they once pulled four pounds of monofilament fishing line off the sunken wreck of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Duane, now an artificial reef and home to schools of barracuda, grunts, and snapper, as well as bull sharks lurking in the distance.
Back on shore, we empty the mesh bags, weigh the debris, and record it. Project Aware uses debris surveys like this to track pollution at dive sites.
The total haul is 146 pounds of trash—fishing line, rope, chains, weights, pieces of derelict lobster traps, two anchors, and four bottles of Heineken that look like they were tossed in the ocean that same day.
All told, staff and volunteers at Rainbow Reef will pull 600 pounds of debris out of the sea during AWARE Week. Rainbow Reef's record weight for debris removed on a single dive is 1,200 pounds.
It's a drop in the ocean, so to speak, but it's the sort of act that often precedes something bigger. It's safe to say no one who picks up a Heineken bottle off the seafloor will throw one back in.
"Thousands of people come through here a year—we're one of the biggest dive operators in the world—so it's been a good opportunity to spearhead it," Huebner says. "We have so many people to show what we're doing, which is way cooler than working on your own."
Bonus: Watch Rainbow Reef's dive against debris in action below.
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