National Geographic : 2019 May
MAY | FROM THE EDITOR Oceans of Debris THERE’S THE PLASTIC waste we can see—bottles, bags, discarded fishing nets, and all manner of other objects littering shorelines and bobbing in oceans. And then there’s the plastic waste we can’t see: microplastics, whittled by sun, wind, and waves into bits so small that some are visible only under a microscope. Scientists are just beginning to understand the impact these particles are having on fish, the food chain, and ultimately, us. For this month’s story about micro- plastics—part of National Geographic’s #PlanetOrPlastic initiative to reduce plastic waste—photographer David Liittschwager documented the ubiquity BY SUSAN GOLDBERG PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LIITTSCHWAGER One net off the coast of Hawaii col- lected 2,459 plastic particles—most the size of a grain of sand. The net also scooped up a bottle cap (bottom right) and a wad of degraded fishing net (top right). of plastics in ocean water samples. Writer Laura Parker’s reporting took her to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Honolulu, where oceanographer Jamison Gove and fish biologist Jonathan Whitney study microplastics in the slicks where larval fish spend their first days of life. In some of those slicks there are more plastics in the water than fish. That raises the odds that just hatched fish will mistake plastic bits for food and eat them. “ The most critical moment is that first feeding,” Whitney said. “If they get a piece of plastic, that could be it. A single thread in the stomach of a larval fish is potentially a killer.” Fish that ingest plastic and survive raise other concerns, Parker writes: “Flying fish appear to eat plastic espe- cially frequently. Besides serving as prey for larger fish, including sharks, flying fish are primary prey for 95 per- cent of Hawaiian seabirds. Are birds ingesting plastic with their flying fish, and is that affecting them? For every question the researchers answer, Gove says, 10 new ones come up.” Most of us won’t see microplastics’ harm at the level that scientists do. But with about nine million tons of visible plastic waste washing into oceans each year, we see clearly how it’s hurting tur- tles, seabirds, whales, and many other species. Isn’t that reason enough to join the global effort to reduce plastic waste? So far in our #PlanetOrPlastic initia- tive, more than 150,000 people have pledged to use nearly 200 million fewer single-use plastic items. I’d call that a good start. j PLANET OR PLASTIC? Learn more about plastic waste and take the pledge to reduce it at natgeo.com/plasticpledge.