Most New York City residents have adjusted to the huge slicks of garbage floating near the entrance to their city’s fabled harbor. But that familiar sight paled beside the stomach-turning debris that marred nearby beaches serving the city this summer. In July, local authorities closed beaches from northern New Jersey to the tip of Long Island. At many points on that more than 180-km-long stretch of shorefront, bloodstained bandages, feces, syringes, vials of the cocaine derivative known as “crack” and containers of what later proved to be AIDS-infected blood washed up onto the sand. In the largest single closure, health officials declared the 10-km-long Rockaway Beach in the New York borough of Queens off-limits to swimmers after nine dead laboratory rats, a human stomach lining and 125 vials of blood drifted ashore. “I am devastated,” said Peg Daly, who runs a snack bar on the Rockaway boardwalk. “You expect the weather to be against you and you make allowances. But you don’t expect garbage on the beach.”
Waste: City authorities blamed the sudden influx of medical waste on illicit dumpers and launched a widely publicized—but so far inconclusive—investigation for offenders. But whatever the source, environmentalists say, the unsightly debris is yet another sign that the oceans sustaining the life of the planet are under deadly siege. In many parts of the world, they say, people have now become accustomed to finding garbage, sewage and toxic waste on their beaches. But those visible wastes are just one small aspect of a larger problem. Indeed, a growing body of evidence-including recent studies by the United Nations Environment Program—indicates that the manmade blight devastating coastal estuaries is now threatening the delicate ecology of deeper waters, causing the deaths of thousands of fish and marine mammals.
Chronic long-term pollution—the land-based chemical and metal discharges that have poured largely unchecked into the world’s oceans for decades—has already inflicted grievous damage on coastal waters and marine life. And unless governments can act to reverse the effects of industrialization, environmentalists argue, even the deepest oceans may be at risk. Said marine biologist Robert Cook, director of the department of fisheries and oceans bio-
logical station in St. Andrews, N.B.: “The oceans tend to be adaptable—but human society has to give nature half a chance.”
Marine scientists note that they usually see the effects of pollution on fish and marine mammals long'before they identify contaminants in the water. And
despite sporadic efforts by many governments around the world to halt the abuse, distress signals from the seas are increasing. In northern Europe, an epidemic that has killed more than half the North Sea seal population during the past four months is widely believed to be the result of chronic pollution. Al-
though the precise causes of such catastrophes remain unknown, researchers say a toxic brew that includes deliberate waste dumping by ships and coastal industries, agricultural runoffs and inadequate sewage treatment contributed to the lethal buildup.
Apart from the North Sea seals, the growing accumulation of waste threatens other marine animal species. Last year, more than 750 dolphins died of still-undetermined causes in the waters bordering the U.S. East Coast. As well, scientists continue to find evidence that contaminants flooding out of Canada’s industrial heartland into the Gulf of St. Lawrence are responsible for the declining population of beluga whales.
Growths: The so-
called greenhouse effect—an increased concentration of gases that traps heat in the atmosphere-poses still another potential danger.
Scientists who argue that the greenhouse effect has already begun note the increasing frequency of algae bloom, or “red tides,” around the world.
Those suffocating plant growths find rich nourishment from river-borne nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers and sewage emptied into the oceans. There, as the algae blooms multiply, they also suck oxygen from the water. And in that process they create vast dead zones of water, ruining fishing grounds and threatening other forms of marine life.
In addition, many scientists say that holes in the ozone layer, which allow more ultraviolet light to reach the Earth’s surface, may be interfering with the reproductive patterns of plankton— forms of marine life that absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide and that are an important source of food for many higher forms of sea life. Some experts also maintain that the harmful effects of warmer waters and ultraviolet light are worsened by the high concen-
tration of nitrogen that is found in acid rain. Michael Oppenheimer, a senior scientist with the U.S.-based Environmental Defence Fund, for one, recently completed a two-year study of pollution in Chesapeake Bay, a 200-mile-long estu-
ary that runs through Virginia and Maryland. And there, he said, 25 per cent of the manmade nitrogen levels in the bay is due to deposits of fossil-fuel combustion—or acid rain.
Damage: Most ocean damage still comes from land-based pollution—in particular the runoff from agricultural fertilizers and pesticides and urban and industrial discharges. And many municipalities on both coasts continue to dump their raw sewage into the ocean. Officials in Saint John, N.B., say that the city dumps more than 10 million gallons of untreated domestic waste into the Bay of Fundy each day. And statistics show that the city of Victoria dumps as much as 20 million gallons daily into the Strait of Juan de Fuca from only one of several locations.
Earlier this year, a coalition of 10 Canadian
environmental organizations voiced their concerns to federal officials about such pollution. High on their list of complaints was the laxity of enforcement under existing legislation. The Fisheries Act, the groups said, contains provisions that are potentially effective and easy to enforce because of the law’s strong inspection powers—and the relative simplicity of demonstrating that pollutants have killed fish in an affected area. Still, in a brief to Environment Canada last April, the groups charged that jockeying between Ottawa and the provinces over the act’s administration had resulted in a “very poor” enforcement record. Environment Minister Thomas McMillan rejected charges that his department is trying to wash its hands of pollution control.
Cost: Similarly, many marine experts also call for increased government action against polluters. Declared Lynne Edgerton, a New York City-based lawyer with the U.S. Natural Resources Defence Council coastal project: “When the ocean is in trouble, the whole economy of an area suffers.” Added Edgerton: “There’s a cost when you have beaches that no one can go to. Those executives who run polluting companies are starting to realize that it’s going to show up in their tuna, that their children are going to be playing in the surf with it.”
Certainly, some remedial work is under way. In the United States and Canada, efforts by the federal governments and industry bans on some chemicals have dramatically reduced the levels of some highly toxic pollutants—including DDT and PCBs, which are long-lasting chemical compounds—that threatened North American waters a decade ago. A joint U.S.-Canada program has cleaned up the St. Croix River to the point that Atlantic salmon can once more swim upstream and spawn in the river that forms the boundary between New Brunswick and Maine.
Despite such efforts, many experts say that mankind is courting disaster by continuing to abuse the oceans. For one thing, Clifton Curtis, the president of the Washington-based Oceanic Society. maintains that the increasing frequency with which officials close beaches and shellfish grounds in coastal waters is a certain sign of trouble looming in deeper waters. Declared Curtis: “Estuaries are sending a very strong message that ocean waters are threatened.” That message, say the environmentalists, is clear: the troubles of the world’s oceans will only worsen without swift corrective action.
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