In early September, I had the opportunity to join Amber Lyon, investigative journalist for CNN, to film evidence of plastic pollution along the Southern California coast. Amber and her producer, Ken Shiffman, were working on a news report about the impact of single-use plastic bags on the environment and on our own potential health. The report, Plastic Wars, will air on CNN Presents this Sunday, October 30th at 5:00pm and again at 8:00pm PST (8pm & 11pm EST).
Many people know about the eyesore on our streets and coastline caused by discarded plastic, or are aware of areas like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where a complex system of ocean currents traps huge quantities of floating plastic debris. However, while the images of floating water bottles, Mylar balloons, and strangulated marine life, can provoke emotional responses, those familiar with ocean conservation know that there is an even greater danger in what we don't see - the minute particles of plastic broken down by sun and wave action that can make for a toxic soup that is capable of working it's way through the marine food chain right to our dinner table.
Read prior post on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
I met up with Amber and her production crew in San Pedro, California, where we boarded the Mr C dive charter boat. We were joined by marine scientist, Dr. Marcus Eriksen, CEO/director of the 5 Gyres Institute and researcher with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Marcus has been studying ocean pollution by plastics for nearly 10 years. The captain of the Mr. C probably thought we were all a bit odd, chartering his boat not to locate some illusive shark or fish or to unlock the secrets of some exotic marine behavior. No, we were looking for floating shopping bags - that was our quarry, our quest.
We first began by cruising around within the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor breakwater. We positioned ourselves between the Los Angeles and Santa Ana river outlets - basically dry concrete river beds that funnel rainwater and enormous amounts of trash right out to sea. City and state agencies try their best to net and scoop as much of the accumulated trash as possible before it enters open sea, but plenty escape and enter the harbor and eventually the open ocean beyond the breakwater.
Weaving around large freighters anchored in the harbor, we came across floating congregations of kelp and sea grasses, cups, water bottles, and plastic bags of all types. Not in any massive quantities, mind you; there have not been any major rains for several months and a weekend change in wind and weather patterns were making things a bit more difficult to find trash in the usual places.
At one point, I decided to jump in and film a white shopping bag floating several feet below the surface. It would make for an arresting image - this ghostly piece of pollution moving gracefully along like some man-made sea jelly.
Well, it would have made for an arresting image if I could only have seen it once I jumped into the harbor! The waters of Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor, like most major commercial ports, are a witches brew of floating sediments, ship oils, and other nasty things I don't even want to think about. When I first jumped in, I felt like I was diving in a pint of Guinness and I couldn't see the bag even when it was a foot in front of me. As we had planned to have Amber and Dr. Ericksen enter the water, when I came back on board (feeling like I needed a Hazmat crew to clean me off) I recommended we head south along the coast where the visibility would be better. Not all plastic trash finds its way to the sea via storm drains; it can also be found off of many of Southern California's beaches, thanks to careless beach goers.
We headed for the popular sandy coves and beaches of Laguna Beach where, during beach dives, I had found various trash items that would get stuck against the thin kelp beds and low-lying rocky reefs. While underway, Amber interviewed Dr. Eriksen, who had brought along some alarming and convincing evidence of plastic micro-particles found in some of the fundamental building blocks of the marine food chain - a chain that can lead straight to commercial marine species destined for the dinner tables of unsuspecting seafood consumers.
I had the Mr. C anchor offshore at an area in Laguna Beach called Picnic Beach - part of Heisler Park and a popular spot for having a picnic and sitting out in the sun. We all jumped in and although the visibility was not great due to a heavy surge and tidal action brought on by an upcoming full moon, it didn't take us long to find our specific quarry. Plastic bags in various states of decomposition gave us the visual evidence we needed to illustrate that plastic does not biodegrade and magically disappear - plastic is forever but continues to break down into smaller and smaller bits, often giving off many of the toxic chemical and petroleum-based ingredients used in its manufacture. A gift that just keeps on giving.
After we finished our dives and headed back to home port, I spent some time talking with Amber about the news piece she is working on. Amber is no "bubble-headed bleach blond" (to quote songwriter Don Henley), she is a dedicated journalist who has put herself in harm's way on more than one occasion (although diving in L.A. harbor water could have been the ultimate test of her bravura). I'm looking forward to her news piece as she examines not only the problem at hand, but also the heroes and villains involved in this important drama, and what lies ahead if we take action now or choose to do nothing.
Here's a video preview of Plastic Wars from CNN.com.
Plastic Wars airs Sunday, October 30th, 5pm PST & 8pm PST (8pm & 11pm EST) on CNN.
For more information on ocean plastic pollution, visit 5 Gyres Institute or Algalita Marine Research Foundation.
Check out Amber Lyon's work at CNN.