The Impact of Plastic Pollution on Surf Breaks and Marine Ecosystems

Source: Weston Fuller

The growing plastic pollution has become a major environmental problem. It poses many threats to our environment, particularly to our oceans. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), about 14 million tons of plastic waste are going into our oceans yearly—that’s like the weight of 56,000 commercial airplanes! Even though we might not see the direct impact of this problem in our daily lives, the effect is far-reaching and concerning, affecting both recreational and ecological aspects of the ocean.  

This article explores how plastic pollution affects surf breaks and marine ecosystems, examining the link between human actions and the health of our oceans. By understanding these connections, we can highlight the urgency of adopting sustainable practices to protect these vital natural spaces.

Types and Sources of Plastic Pollution

Before understanding the impact of plastic pollution on surf breaks and marine ecosystems, we must first find out the types of plastic that pollute these areas and where they usually come from. 

There are various types of plastic that are manufactured, used, and discarded daily, with many ending up in the ocean and coastal areas. Here are some of the most common plastics polluting these regions.

  1. Single-Use Plastic Bags: Lightweight and commonly used for carrying groceries, these bags are typically made of polyethylene. Due to their lightweightness, they are easily carried by the wind and water, leading to their accumulation in coastal areas. 
  2. Disposable Plastic Bottles (PET): These bottles, commonly used for beverages, are made from Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET). Despite being recyclable, many end up in oceans due to inadequate recycling practices and improper disposal of consumers, particularly beachgoers or people in coastal communities. 
  3. Styrofoam Food Containers: Made from expanded polystyrene (EPS), styrofoam is widely used for takeout food packaging. Its lightweight and buoyant nature makes it easily transportable by wind and water, leading to its prevalence in coastal areas. They can also be sourced from nearby beach restaurants and food stalls. 
  4. Plastic Straws: Often made of polypropylene, plastic straws are single-use items that contribute significantly to plastic pollution. Because of their small size and lightweight design, they are prone to be easily blown by wind due to improper disposal by consumers, particularly beachgoers and people in coastal communities
  5. Plastic Packaging Materials: Plastic packaging materials, including blister packs, food wrappers, and sachets, contribute to coastal and ocean pollution. These items are typically made from various plastics, including polyethylene and polypropylene. Improper disposal leads to their entry into water bodies, breaking down into microplastics that flow to the ocean unnoticeably.
  6. Fishing Nets: Abandoned or lost fishing nets, also known as ghost nets. These are some of the major contributors to marine plastic pollution. Composed of durable materials like nylon or polyethylene, these nets usually come from small fishing boats and large fishing vessels when their fishing nets are cut off and taken by currents during fishing activities.

Impact of Plastic Pollution on Surf Breaks and Surf Conditions

Disruption of Wave Patterns and Quality

Plastic pollution significantly affects the dynamics of surf breaks, leading to disruptions in wave patterns and compromising the overall quality of the surfing experience. Floating debris, including plastic bags, bottles, and fragments, can alter the natural flow of waves, causing irregular breaks and reducing the consistency surfers rely on.

Plastics in the water can interfere with the formation and trajectory of waves, making it challenging for surfers to predict and ride waves effectively. This disruption not only diminishes the enjoyment of the sport but also poses a threat to the unique characteristics that make each surf break special.

Hazards to Surfers

The proliferation of plastic waste in surf breaks introduces serious hazards to surfers, ranging from entanglement to potential injuries. Discarded fishing nets, often composed of durable materials, pose a particular risk. These “ghost nets” can entwine surfers and their equipment, leading to drownings and injuries. Additionally, smaller plastic fragments and sharp edges can cause lacerations, posing an unseen danger to those navigating the waves. The risk of injury is a concern for surfers and marine life, as they may inadvertently ingest or become entangled in plastic debris. 

In addition to potential harm from discarded items like fishing nets, plastic pollution can become a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses. Microscopic organisms can thrive on the surfaces of plastic debris, carrying the risk of infection and the spread of diseases. Surfers navigating through polluted waters may unknowingly expose themselves to these health hazards. 

Addressing plastic pollution is a matter of environmental preservation and a crucial step in ensuring the safety of those who enjoy the ocean’s waves. Efforts to mitigate plastic pollution must prioritize the conservation of surf breaks as safe and enjoyable spaces for surfers while maintaining the ecological integrity of these unique environments.

Impact of Plastic Pollution on Marine Ecosystems and Wildlife 

Ecological Consequences (Effects on Coral Reefs and Water Quality)

Coral reefs are also affected by plastic pollution. Microplastics, microscopic fragments resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic items, infiltrate coral habitats, causing physical harm and hindering their ability to thrive. For example, when a sheet of plastic waste entangled and covers the top of a coral reef, it will block out the sun from reaching the corals. This will prevent corals from photosynthesizing, which will eventually suffocate, starve, and kill them. According to recent research, 92% of all surveyed coral reefs in the study are covered in plastic.

Additionally, plastic pollution degrades water quality as toxins leach from plastics into the surrounding marine environment. This contamination not only endangers the health of coral reefs but also jeopardizes the entire web of life dependent on these vibrant ecosystems.

Entanglement and Ingestion (Effects on Marine Wildlife)

Marine wildlife faces dire consequences from plastic pollution, with entanglement and ingestion prevalent issues. Discarded fishing nets, known as ghost nets, create deadly traps for marine animals, leading to entanglement that can result in injuries, deformities, or even death. Moreover, marine species often mistake plastic debris for food, leading to ingestion. The indigestible nature of plastics can obstruct digestive systems, cause malnutrition, and introduce harmful chemicals into the animals’ bodies. This disrupts individual life cycles and has cascading effects on entire marine food webs.

Disruption of Nesting Sites

Plastic pollution also threatens marine species that rely on specific nesting sites. Coastal areas are often prime locations for nesting sea turtles, seabirds, and other marine creatures. Unfortunately, plastic debris on these nesting grounds can obstruct access to nesting sites or entangle nesting animals, hindering their ability to lay eggs or care for their young. The disruption of these critical reproductive habitats jeopardizes the survival of numerous marine species, contributing to population declines and ecological imbalances.

Mitigation Strategies

Addressing the impact of plastic pollution on surf breaks and marine ecosystems requires concerted efforts and proactive measures. Here are key strategies aimed at mitigating the plastic problem:

  1. Public Awareness: Public awareness is the first line of defense against plastic pollution. Educating communities, surfers and the general public about the environmental consequences of single-use plastics fosters a collective commitment to change. Awareness campaigns, workshops, and educational programs can highlight the importance of reducing plastic consumption, emphasizing the long-term benefits for the health of our oceans and surf breaks.
  2. Alternatives to Common Items: Encouraging alternatives to common single-use plastic items is a practical step towards reducing plastic waste. Simple switches, such as reusable bags, bottles, and containers, significantly minimize plastic pollution. Promoting the availability and accessibility of eco-friendly alternatives empowers individuals to make environmentally conscious choices, creating a positive ripple effect within communities.
  3. Proper Waste Management: Establishing and enforcing robust waste management practices is crucial for preventing plastic from reaching surf breaks and coastal areas. Communities, businesses, and local governments are vital in implementing effective waste collection, recycling, and disposal systems. Adequate infrastructure for recycling facilities and waste bins, along with clear guidelines on proper disposal, ensures that plastic waste is appropriately managed and does not find its way into the ocean.