Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rock Snot, or "Who Cares, Part 1"

"Who cares?" Such a simple, devastating question.

Trash at the beach, ocean flotsam, why blog about it? Why worry about it? Why waste a moment of thought on it? Is it really such a big deal? Just pick it up -- or ignore it -- and move on with your life. "Why should I care?"

It's the question, and it's one the Flotsam Diaries has kinda dodged to this point. Mostly because there are so many answers, it's daunting to try to put them down in a blog.

But I had a moment of serendipity this morning at the beach. And I think it's a good point for jumping in. So, think of this post as a down payment on a much bigger conversation.

Lookie what I found today:
I saw this lobster trap lying a ways north of where I usually collect trash, but wandered over to see if it had a trap tag I could add to my list. It didn't, but it did have something even more interesting:
Those funny looking spongy things are Didemnum vexillum, a saltwater version of the sea squirt known, lovingly, as "rock snot." This is an invasive form of tunicate -- a filter feeder -- originally from Japan, that has shown up in New England in only the past decade. They grow into thick, impenetrable masses across the sea floor, smothering and killing scallops and mussels, perhaps even wiping out certain fish spawning grounds.
They have no predator in New England waters. They grow like lightning. They are spreading. They hit Washington State in 2004, the U.K in 2008.

Didemnum vexillum can spread easily. All it takes is something on the sea floor that doesn't belong there, and a nice ocean storm to move that something to new breeding grounds. Such as one of the tens of thousands of lost lobster traps now polluting the bottom of the Gulf of Maine.

But it's not just bulky lobster traps that can move species to places where they're most unwelcome. The plastics now bobbing at or near the water's surface can also carry colonies of life:
This was found in the North Pacific in the summer of 2009 by Project Kaisei, a team hoping to learn about the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is teeming with life -- hundreds of fish eggs, two crabs, and countless microscopic organisms. It is one piece out of the billions now floating in the world's oceans. A piece of plastic like this can travel anywhere in the world depending on the currents it finds. It can carry invaders from extreme distances, any of which could, quite literally, annihilate an ecosystem that took millions of years to evolve.

Much of the specialization, and diversity, that make this world such an astonishing place is at risk of being wiped out by invasives, many of which are hitching a ride on our man-made waste.

You want to talk about who cares? We all should.


  1. Harry,

    You are certainly talking about stuff which matters a lot to our family. As a scuba diver you do end up seeing a lot of rubbish thrown away. It is the usual mentality...out of sight = out of mind.

    It is a huge worry what is going on in the oceans worldwide. There is a good film going round at the moment called "The end of the line" which we've not managed to see yet. I'm worried about watching as I know it will scare the hell out of me.

    The sea runs through my veins as my maternal side has been traced back to a master mariner in South Shields. My grandfather (who had a fish and chip shop) used to go down to the docks and get huge cod just after the war. What is happening to fish stocks and all marine life is a crime.

    Mr. H.'s legacy in Hurghada was to ensure that HEPCA...Hurghada Environmental Protection Conservation Assoc. ( was in good hands. It is. So luckily there they are intent on doing some good work in that area of The Red Sea.

    If we all start doing something small...I think it will make a big difference. Cracking down on dropping litter. I nag my children about it the whole time. :)

  2. I can only imagine some of the sights you saw on the seafloor! And what a brilliant legacy to leave behind. Whatever havoc people can wreak, I try to remember that it's also people who can -- and do -- make a positive difference.

    Thanks for the tip on "The End of the Line." It's always that never-ending war between immediate profit and long-term sustainability. I see rays of hope that a working balance can be found; the Gulf of Maine has some good success stories -- and a lot of battles still playing out.

    In the end, I think you're right on. Do the little things, and people will notice, and it will make a difference.