"Oceans in Peril," but hope floats

Miles of pristine, clear blue water stretch alongside a clean white beach. This image is often conjured when imagining the ocean—cleanliness, openness, serenity. But what if that weren’t the case? What if, instead, the waters were littered with sewage and trash? What if the shoreline were pockmarked with plastic bags, hypodermic needles and cigarette butts? What if all the fish were dead from mercury poisoning? Closing this semester’s Distinguished Scientists Lecture Series last Tuesday was Dr. Garen Baghdasarian, who discussed his research on the ecological repercussions of trash in oceans at his lecture entitled “Oceans in Peril: A Sailing Voyage Across the South Pacific.”

“Imagine a bucket of water, and you put various chunks of stuff into the water, and then stuck your finger in there and started swirling that water,” Baghdasarian said at the lecture. “Everything would go toward the center, right? That’s what happens in the ocean, and we end up with these gyres within the major oceans where various pollutants, trash, and pieces of plastic are gathered and collected.”

Baghdasarian, former director of the Center for Environmental and Urban Studies, is a biology instructor and chair of the life sciences department at Santa Monica College.

“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is in the North Pacific, and there is a lot of work that has been done about that,” said Baghdasarian, referring to a massive aggregate of trash in the Pacific, a vortex of oceanic pollution.

“What we decided to do—my wife and I, and a group of other people—was to investigate the South Pacific Gyre. The idea was to sail from the Maldives all the way across this gyre, and see what we were able to find.”

According to Baghdasarian, 71 percent of the world’s surface is covered by water, and over 95 percent of the living area on earth is within water.

“What we were looking for is what a lot of people have in mind as these trash islands that are found in the middle of the ocean,” said Baghdasarian.

He explained his discovery that a floating mass of trash in the middle of the ocean is not actually always the case in the South Pacific.

“When you go out there, what you really see is this perfectly blue clear water,” said Baghdasarian. “Occasionally, you’d see some sort of a floating chunk of plastic, but what’s really the problem was something else.”

By trawling, which is a technique usually used to collect plankton, Baghdasarian and his team collected trash from the water.

“This is a big problem because [the trash] is mixed with the plankton,” said Baghdasarian. “So if you tried to clean this, you’d essentially take away all the plankton, and that’s not reasonable. And there is no way to attract just the plastics.”

Inside a rainbow runner fish, Baghdasarian and his group found 17 fragments of plastic.

“The plastics are pulling all the chemicals to them, and concentrating them within a small piece, so that when fish eat it, it gets into the food system and goes up the food chain,” said Baghdasarian.

Trash in the water and on beaches is not only found in the South Pacific. Sara Bayles, Baghdasarian’s wife, runs the blog “The Daily Ocean,” where she posts pictures of litter found on a beach in Santa Monica.

“I collect trash from the same beach for 20 minutes at a time,” Bayles stated on her blog. “My goal is to do this for 365 non-consecutive days. My average is one beach cleanup every three days.”

“The solution is not to clean up; the solution is to prevent this from happening in the first place,” said Baghdasarian.

At the lecture, Baghdasarian illustrated some simple things people can do to help nature recover, including purchasing local food, recycling, and using public transportation.

“The point is that it is time to make the change,” said Baghdasarian. “You can still make a change because it’s not over the edge yet.”