A marine iguana has been staring at me for the better part of an hour. I don’t take it personally. From the iguana’s perch atop the black volcanic rocks of the Galápagos, the sight of humans scrambling on all fours across the beach must be strange indeed.
Two centuries ago, the naturalist Charles Darwin came to the Galápagos Islands to study iguanas and other species that are endemic to the remote archipelago. Today, we’ve come back in search of tiny invaders that pose an enormous threat to Earth’s oceans and the rich variety of life they sustain.
It’s a painstaking process that my WWF colleague has been carrying out for several years. First, we cordon off small sections of the beach—about three feet square each—along the high tide line. Next, we scoop the top layer of sand from each sample and deposit it in a bucket. Then, we handpick the pieces of plastic from the sand: minuscule bits of plastic no larger than a grain of rice, many even smaller.
We find roughly 1,500 pieces in every sample of sand. They are microplastics, and they are so prevalent in the ocean that they can now be found in 60 aquatic species that people eat and in 90% of the sea salt that ends up on dining tables. This virtually invisible threat underscores the challenge of ocean conservation: The marine world may be out of sight and out of mind for many people, but it is present in our lives in many ways.
Eight million tons of plastic enter our oceans every year, or roughly one garbage truck load of plastic every minute. Plastic debris is a major threat to marine life, causing death by ingestion, suffocation, entanglement, reduced motility, and both external and internal injuries. Many larger species starve because their stomachs are literally filled with plastic. Increasingly, that plastic finds its way into the food chain. A half-century ago, 5% of seabirds had plastic debris in their stomachs. Today, it’s 90%. By 2050, when the oceans will contain more tons of plastic than fish, that statistic could rise to 99%.
The prospect of oceans with more plastic than fish boggles the mind, but it’s our job as conservationists to conceive the inconceivable. If we can see the threat looming, we can change course. But time is running out and, sadly, plastic is just one of several threats to our oceans.
One fish, two fish, red fish, few fish
Up to 12% of the world’s population depends on fisheries and aquaculture—farmed seafood—for their livelihoods. Together with tourism, shopping, and other activities, these industries contribute to an ocean economy worth $2.5 trillion. If the oceans were a nation, it would have the seventh-largest economy in the world.
The oceans’ finite resources can’t keep up with growing demand. Nearly 60% of fisheries are fully fished, and one-third are overfished. Populations of marine species monitored by WWF’s 2016 Living Planet Report experienced an average decline of 36% in less than one person’s lifetime.
The world’s oceans are home to roughly 2 million species, only 10% of which have been fully identified. We have mapped the surface of Mars in more detail than the ocean floor; right here on Earth is an entire alien world full of undiscovered wonders that are on the verge of vanishing forever.
BY 2050, THE OCEANS COULD CONTAIN MORE PLASTICS THAN FISH.
This underwater ecological treasure benefits all peoples and all nations, and protecting it requires a common approach. That’s the idea behind Common Oceans, a partnership between the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the Global Environment Facility, and several conservation groups, including WWF. Common Oceans works with governments and businesses across an area of ocean over which no single nation has authority or responsibility. This area, known as marine Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, encompasses 62% of the world’s oceans and 95% of their water volume, underscoring the need for a global approach.
WWF participates in several Common Oceans projects, including a “tuna think tank” of commodity experts who worked together to develop incentives for more eco-friendly practices in the tuna fishing industry.
Outside of Common Oceans, WWF pursues many other solutions, big and small, from innovative strategies to finance the protection of large-scale marine areas, to refining fishing nets with specialized LED lights that help keep turtles from getting accidentally entangled—finally answering the age-old question “How many light bulbs does it take to save a sea turtle?”
Short on time
And yet, even as we strive to protect imperiled marine species, we must also act quickly to protect the critical ecosystems that support them. Now more than ever, these ecosystems are under siege.
Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean floor but support more than 25% of marine life. Thanks to climate change, these “rain forests of the sea” are rapidly transforming into vast tracts of lifeless, ghostly scrub. Rising ocean temperatures catalyze a biological process in reefs called coral bleaching, which turns them stark white and causes them to starve. By 2050, up to 90% of reefs could be gone. This outcome would have serious implications for marine life, as well as the half-billion people who depend on reefs for their food, their livelihoods, and protection from waves and storm surges.
Shifting rainfall, rising seas, and other consequences of climate change threaten another invaluable coastal ecosystem: mangrove forests. Mangroves cover only 0.1% of the land but, like coral reefs, serve as natural protection from extreme weather, shelter diverse wildlife, and are a source of food and revenue for communities. They also are more efficient at absorbing carbon than any other kind of forest. That makes them a powerful ally in the fight against climate change.
And yet we have already lost half the world’s mangroves in the past 50 years, as a result of pollution, the timber industry, aquaculture, the expansion of cities and infrastructure, and climate change.
WWF is committed to preserving our coral reefs and mangrove forests. So much hinges on collaboration, because these ecosystems, like the world’s dwindling fish stocks, are shared resources that require collective solutions. That’s why WWF has joined with other international conservation groups to establish the Global Mangrove Alliance, which aims to increase mangrove habitat by 20% by 2030.
And WWF has helped further the broader fight against climate change by helping to establish We Are Still In, an unprecedented coalition of American businesses, cities, states, and other subnational actors dedicated to fulfilling the climate commitments that the US made under the Paris Agreement.
BY 2050, UP TO 90% OF REEFS COULD BE GONE.
It’s crucial for us to keep innovating. WWF has collaborated with Wildlife Conservation Society to help develop cutting-edge technology like the Marine Ecological Research and Monitoring AID, or MERMAID, a web-based tool that streamlines data collection on the health of coral reefs, enabling scientists and policy-makers to respond more rapidly to their loss.
To be clear, speed is of the essence. According to a new study recently published in the journal Science, the oceans are warming up to 64% faster than previously thought. Critically, warm water occupies more space than cold water. If nothing is done to slow this trend, the study projects the warming will cause sea levels to rise one foot by the end of this century, with serious consequences for many coastal communities. And that projection doesn’t even take into account the effect of melting ice caps and a thawing Arctic.
We have become a major threat to the future of our oceans. If we don’t act soon, our oceans will become a major threat to the future of humanity. And yet, as I crawl across a beach in the Galápagos Islands searching for pieces of plastic, I am hopeful.
People are amazing (when they want to be)
The sun is sinking below the horizon. It’s magic hour in the Galápagos. I take a break from inspecting my square foot of sand and look up to see that more iguanas have gathered on the rocks to watch me work. It makes me think of a scene out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, which isn’t the most comforting thought when several large lizards are giving you the thousand-yard stare.
But there’s also something stirring about having the local fauna as an audience. It’s a powerful reminder of what we’re fighting for. And even if the iguanas don’t know it, our efforts here have made a difference. Together with Toyota, WWF has helped Santa Cruz Island, the most populated island in the Galápagos, create a waste management system that recycles more than 50% of its overall waste. It’s among the most efficient recycling initiatives in Ecuador and a potential model for other nations to replicate. It’s also an example of how learning from the historical knowledge of local communities gives us an even greater chance at succeeding.
This spring we also launched ReSource, a global activation hub that empowers businesses like McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and others to help stop the flow of plastic into nature by 2030. It’s a bold goal, but if history tells us anything, it’s that people are capable of amazing things. The same ingenuity that led to the invention of plastics can surely find a way to keep them out of our oceans. The intrepid spirit that drove us to explore the surface of Mars can also achieve a healthy balance between people and nature—right here on Earth.
World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.
World Wildlife Fund Inc. is a nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization (tax ID number 52-1693387) under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law.