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Interconnected oceans

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) takes place on Saturday, September 19. Last year 560,000 volunteers in 91 countries removed 16 million pounds of trash along 13,000 miles of beaches and waterways. 

You should take part. Bring your friends, your family. Nobody who has been part of a beach clean will forget the amount of trash collected, the disgust at how we are polluting our world and the pride in being part of the solution. Mark the date on your calendar. 

The ICC records everything that is collected. Last year 530 Trinidadian and Tobagonian volunteers collected 4,695 lbs of trash from 10.5 miles of beach. That is 447 lbs of trash per mile! Among the finds were 4,099 plastic bottles, 1,598 plastic bottle caps and 733 cigarette butts. 

Ocean Conservancy makes special mention of the weirdest trash found during the ICC. Their website mentions eight bowling balls, five rubber ducks and one plastic dinosaur. I think T&T can do better than this in the weird category! 

Among the weirdest and most rare ocean trash has to be the spaceship debris from the Russian Soyuz and European Ariane rockets that wash up on Trinidad’s east coast. If you know what to look for they are quite easy to find: curved white aluminium panels with a honeycomb interior structure for strength. Spend enough time beachcombing east coast beaches and you are bound to find them.

This is my personal challenge: to find some rocket ship debris to be included as the weirdest find of the 2015 ICC. 

I know exactly where to look. Matura beach is an excellent location. It is on the east coast where the Atlantic current that hugs northern Brazil and the Guyanas collides with Trinidad. The rockets are launched from French Guiana. Their trajectory takes them over the Atlantic. The various launch stages fall harmlessly in the ocean and the ocean current carries them to Trinidad.

I once called Arianespace in Paris. I had some photos of rocket ship debris with markings. I wanted to identify what launch the debris was from. The first thing the operator said me when I explained that I found bits and pieces of their rocket was: “We are not responsible for that!” In a way it was humorous. The person I spoke with seemed to think that I complaining about them littering the ocean.

I didn’t get the information I wanted. Using web resources and the markings on the panels I was able to figure out that the debris came from a Soyuz launch vehicle that had launched the US$1.2 billion Gaia satellite in to space. The Gaia satellite is fascinating. Its job is to catalogue one billion stars. That is history in the making! And a tiny bit of this history was just lying there on an east coast beach. It wasn’t the only bit of debris.

The coast is full of marine debris, each with its own story. There is some that is natural, like the donkey eye seeds that all Trinidadian and Tobagonian children have used to terrorise their friends with. Those are the seeds with the black stripe that get scorching hot when rubbed on concrete. There are the sea coconuts that kids use as cricket balls and dozens of other nuts for which I don’t know the names. 

They all have their own story. They grew on a tree somewhere in South America. Maybe they came down the mighty Amazon River before being swept towards Trinidad by the current. Many great rivers of the world empty into that stretch of coast: the Oyapock that divides Brazil from French Guiana, the Marowijne River in Suriname, the Essiquibo in Guyana or the massive Orinoco in Venezuela. Along with the natural debris is now also tons and tons of plastic trash. Mostly bottles. Each of these has a story too. They were produced somewhere in Brazil, Guyana or Venezuela.

Somebody in one of those countries threw them away in a drain, or just on the side of the road. The rains brought them to the river that carried them to the sea. I have found bottles from all those countries on east coast beaches. Apparently French Guiana doesn’t have the same problem with litter. I rarely find French bottles. 

Trinidad is not just a recipient of plastic bottles from other countries. I have tracked plastic bottles from Trinidad as far as Mexico. Just have a look at the Diego Martin River after it rains and you know where they come from. Parliamentarians can take a look at the sea in front of the Hyatt hotel. All that plastic trash heads up the coast and out through the Bocas in to the wider world. 

Plastic never biodegrades. It breaks down to small bits of plastic, small enough to be mistaken for food by the tiniest of ocean creatures, plankton. Ingested by plankton it makes its way back into the food web, and it to us humans. We poison ourselves. Plastics in the ocean absorb chemical compounds from surrounding seawater. Animals take in these toxins when they ingest plastics. We eat those animals. This is why it is so important that we reduce the amount of plastic we use. 

Lobby our government for a deposit on beverage containers, mass education about littering and for nationwide, curbside recycling.


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