Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Marine Debris, Estrogen Mimics, and the Never-ending Story

This story and video at Collective Evolution prompted me to re-blog this post from a year ago on marine debris and the Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific.


From Surfrider Foundation. For more, go to
It's hard to maintain a positive attitude when you're a marine scientist, particularly if you study anthropogenic impacts to marine and coastal environments. There are so many, and some of the impacts are so completely devastating, avoidable, and ignored that it's easy to get frustrated. Marine debris is one of those persistently studied and talked about, and continuously shrugged off problems. The world's marine science community has been talking about it for decades. Environmental groups have been delivering marine debris education and outreach programs, including beach cleanups, for as long.


I participated in my first "clean up" in about 1970, with the Boy Scout's annual cleanup of the creek by my grandmother's house (my dad was the Scout master in the neighborhood--I did more Boy Scout than Girl Scout things.) At the time and far from the ocean in upstate NY, I didn't know about the route that litter would have taken down Choconut Creek to the Susquehanna River, south through Pennsylvania, eventually dumping into the Chesapeake Bay, and ultimately the ocean.

In my senior year of college in 1986, the CVI Dive Club (we named ourselves the Reefers, but the school wouldn't let us keep the name!) organized a "Trash-ure Hunt" complete with prizes. The group that began coordinating nationwide "Beach Sweeps" (Clean Ocean Action) was in its infancy and we'd never heard of them, but divers knew there was a litter problem on land that was affecting the reefs around the islands.

Five years later, I was organizing the annual Virgin Islands' Beach Sweeps on St. Thomas as the Sea Grant Marine Extension Agent at VIMAS (Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service). Marine debris research, outreach, and education were a huge part of that job. I participated in local, regional, and international conferences where we talked about the problem, bemoaned the slow progress in addressing it, patted ourselves on the back for our efforts, and supported each other with assurances things would get better. How could they not? Look at all the work being done around the world? Look at the vast numbers of committed people, professionals and volunteers, who were getting the word out, pushing for better legislation, better waste disposal practices, and greater awareness. We WOULD succeed.
Yours truly at one of the many marine debris conferences
I attended over the years. I think this is the 3rd or 4th International
Marine Debris Confernce in Miami, 1994

We saw a number of victories. Recycling and bottle bills reduced the number of aluminum cans and glass bottles in the annual cleanups. Instead, cigarette butts became the number one beach cleanup item by number. Plastic bottles and bags were tops by volume. But plastic is light. It readily blows off the beach and into the water, where it floats away, out of sight, out of reach, killing marine life.

Six-pack plastic ring manufacturers began making break-away rings. Whoo-hoo! Animals would no longer get trapped in the rings and cut in half as they grew but the ring didn't. Plastic grocery bags, however, still floated in the sea like jellyfish, still were eaten by turtles, dolphins, seabirds, sharks, fish, and still killed them just as dead by filling their stomachs or blogging their intestines.

International regulations and increased enforcement led to many changes in the cruise ship and commercial fishing industries. Rewarding whistle blowers was a major victory. Everyone had cameras and video recorders on their cruise, and everyone knew if they caught any illegal dumping on film, they'd get a big chunk of money from whatever fines were imposed on the violator. It only took a few high profile cases and high fines before serious changes took place. As became apparent in a short time, many of those changes were superficial, resulting in sneakier, rather than better practices.


By the late-90s, many of us who'd been seeing, saying, and doing the same things over and over and seeing few results were burning out. Did annual beach cleanups help by drawing attention to the problem or hurt by rewarding those who were going to litter anyway? An out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude seemed to be winning the marine debris war.

In 1997, a sailor came upon an enormous stretch of floating debris in the Pacific. The sailor, Charles Moore, alerted oceanographers. The phenomenon had been predicted a decade earlier, and now here it was, just as the models had shown. Rather than seeing a reduction in marine debris from all those efforts, we saw the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the culmination of decades of plastics being discharged into the ocean, sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally. Since then, a similar patch has been found in the North Atlantic.


The Garbage Patch is an area in the central North Pacific Ocean where circling currents "trap" debris. Estimates of its size vary from "twice the size of Texas" to "as large as the continental US." There is no finite border where, on one side there is plastic and on the other there is not, instead there's a gradient of decreasing plastic concentration, making the boundary difficult to judge.

You'd think that having a big floating garbage dump in the ocean would be a serious wake up call to the world that this is (still) a serious problem. But, out-of-sight, out-of-mind wins again. While plastics are forever, that garbage bag and plastic bottle that blew off the beach probably aren't floating in the gyre. What's there, are microscopic suspended particles--tiny pieces of those plastics. Sunlight and water work together to break down the plastics into ever smaller pieces. Plastics never go away, but they do get brittle and break up. Rather than one bottle or one bag, those pieces of litter now contribute hundreds of thousands of smaller polymers (still plastic, but itty-bitty pieces) floating in the sea. The particles are so small that even the tiniest plankton (small animals that feed bigger animals, like all the seafood we eat) can ingest it. And they do.

"So what?" you might ask.  Why should we care what little animals in the ocean eat? We haven't seen any real consequences to people from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Maybe this is a non-issue.

Well, hold on a second. Aren't we experiencing the consequences of plastics in the environment?

Besides the particles' danger to wildlife, on the microscopic level the floating debris can adsorb organic pollutants from seawater, including PCBs, DDT, and PAHs.  Aside from toxic effects, when ingested, some of these are mistaken by the endocrine system as estradiol, causing hormone disruption in the affected animal. Many of these fish are then consumed by humans, resulting in their ingestion of toxic chemicals. THAT is one of the really good reasons why we should care.


Estradiol is a sex hormone--it has a critical impact on reproductive and sexual functioning. Estrogen mimics, like those released from the photodegradation of plastics and magnified up the food chain into our seafood. In our bodies, they attach themselves to estrogen receptors in cells and mimic the action of the body's natural estrogen, or they may block the action of natural estrogen and are thus called estrogen antagonists.

The rise in estrogen mimics in the environment since the 40s (when widespread production and use of plastics really took off) coincides with decreased sperm counts in men during the same time. They have also been tied to the increase in cases of endometriosis in women in the same time period. A series of unrelated studies over that same time period, from around the developed world, show physiological problems involving abnormal reproductive development, unusual sexual behavior, and neurological problems exhibited by a diverse group of animal species including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and marine mammals. All these problems are indicative of the action of estrogen mimics accumulating up the food chain and impacting living organisms, including humans.


While plastics are far from the only synthetic products releasing estrogen mimics and other chemicals into the environment, they are a concern, not only from the aesthetic standpoint of litter being ugly, but also from an environmental and human health position.

I have to remind my Human Biology classes each semester that the reason we study the environment during the class, as well as human physiology, is because we are part of the environment. What goes around comes back around. Usually, if we sent it around, it comes around and bites us in the ass.

The real problem isn't marine debris. The real problem, the one that beach cleanups and education can't solve, is that we care more about our own convenience today than the bite on our children's asses 30, 40, or 50 years from now. That's a problem that nature may fix for us if we keep ignoring the warning signs.

Friday, October 18, 2013

JAWS, or Handling the Fear in Open-water Swimming

I love open-water swimming. Lakes, rivers, the ocean, it's both exhilarating and calming. I'd be lying if I said it's not a little bit frightening, too. While I don't do as much open-water swimming as I used to, when I was swimming Brewers Bay, from the UVI dock to Black Point and back regularly, a swim didn't pass where I didn't start humming Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum-da-dum-da-dum somewhere out in the middle of the bay.

Thanks Jaws.

Original movie poster from Jaws (1975)

Here's a post from "The Swimming Blog" that appeared in The Guardian not too long ago that had me giggling and nodding my head in commiseration with the author, Jenny Landrith.
Open-water Swimming: How do you handle the fear?

Now, during my once a year open-water swim on the Cooper River, I tend to "get in the zone" or what I've referred to in a previous blog post as "swimmer's bliss" by counting strokes. I play games to make the 2.4 miles pass faster: "No peaking until I've swum 100 strokes." Or, "Count how many strokes to the next buoy" then compare that to the number of strokes to the one after that. Those distractions can keep me occupied for most of the swim, but still, at some point it happens.

Da-dum. Da-dum. Da-dum-da-dum-da-dum

I'm not certain if it's fear or habit anymore. Maybe it's even become my way to deal with fear: do something silly like sing the Jaws theme.

How do you deal with your fear of the unknown?

Monday, October 7, 2013


I recently celebrated my 50th birthday, as did hubby a few months earlier. Matt has 6 years until retirement, when we can sail off into the sunset.

Or at least that's been my retirement dream for as long as I can remember. Ever since I moved to the Virgin Islands when I was 19, I've known that's where I want to spend my life. It's home. It's where I feel comfortable, and don't have to try to be anything but me. I'd dreamed of staying there forever.

Then living got in the way of my life and I went to Puerto Rico to pursue another dream: getting my PhD. Then I moved to South Carolina to pursue yet another dream: paying off my student loan debt. Then I found a dream I didn't even know I had: I fell in love and married Matt. Then we started finding and chasing new dreams together: living in Europe, finding Muggle and falling in love with him, traveling, and planning our retirement together.

Even with all that, my dream of returning to the Virgin Islands has always been there in the back of my mind. But "stuff" always gets in the way. Career, husband, aging parents, pets, friends, health concerns, and just getting older in general.

I still find myself looking forward to buying a sailboat and retiring aboard, sailing the Caribbean, getting rid of all the obligations and responsibilities that go with the "dirt-dweller" life: the stuff we accumulate under the silly notion that stuff = happiness.

But now, instead of getting excited when I fantasize about that life I'd dreamed of, I get stressed. I worry about leaving aging relatives, parents with health concerns, how to accommodate the pets while living aboard or just living in the islands (Tibetan Terriers haven't evolved for the tropics!), how Matt would actually deal with the relatively nomadic lifestyle that I enjoy, how we'd handle what seems like a constantly escalating number of health issues, and most worrisome of all, how I'd deal with those things now that I'm older.

At 19, running away from "everything" to pursue my dreams was simple. I packed my bags, I moved. Seriously, I didn't exactly know where the Virgin Islands were when I boarded the plane back then. (I don't know why more 20, 21, 22-year-olds don't do that, why they already seem so concerned with "security." They'll never be able to do it as easily as they can now!) Now, though, as an adult, with responsibilities and obligations, with homes, pets, family, and "stuff," it now seems so much more complicated.

It shouldn't be. If we really want something, we should do it. All of those "concerns" are merely excuses. They can all be accommodated. Planes fly on schedules and it would take me almost as long to get to upstate NY or Chicago from the Virgin Islands as it does from South Carolina. So much of our "stuff" is stuck in closets and drawers, never to come out, but there "just in case," that it really isn't a real reason to worry at all. We should get rid of it anyway.

To keep our (my?) dreams of sailing the world (or at least just traveling it) alive after retirement, and perhaps to give me a shot of courage, I've been living vicariously through my new friends Carol and David Rocco. They spent their honeymoon in St. John, USVI, fell in love, decided that's where they wanted to be, and did it. They pursued their dream, made it happen, and are now experiencing all the excitement, angst, wonder, stress, and elation of discovering a new life. They're my heroes.

Myra Nelson, another friend through my online writing group, and her husband Jack, packed up and retired to Costa Rica. She'd been a teacher in Philly, and also spent time traveling through Asia and teaching English in Japan. We met Myra and Jack while in CR last year. I'm in awe of their adventure, and her openness in sharing her experience going through a health scare as an expat. She gives me hope!

Sarah Corbett settled in Costa Rica in 1992--before it became the hot spot for expat Americans, where they could live in an English-speaking community filled with other Americans. She's immersed herself in the culture and her blog is filled with fun, funny, and wonderful tidbits that both intrigue me and make me worry about my hubby's ability to ever retire anywhere outside of suburbia USA! (Especially tales and photos of some of the "visitors" they've had, like the one she talks about in THIS blog post, or in the picture below.)

The green Lora that visited Sarah one morning.
(Huge, yes, but kind of cute, isn't it?)

Of course, in suburbia USA, we rarely get visitors like these that have showed up in Sarah's yard, either, so it balances out:

Wooly Anteater visiting Sarah

Central American Silky Possum


Our neighbors, Misty and Terry, dreamed of moving to the west coast and last year, packed their bags and headed to San Diego. Four pets and all (3 cats and a dog---they're now up to 3 cats and 2 dogs). Normandie Fischer has sailed the world with a boat full of kids and now pursues her dream of writing while sailing up and down the east coast to visit her new grandbaby.

All of these friends are my heroes because not only were they all brave enough to pursue their dreams, but they're also keeping my dreams alive. When I wonder if Matt and I will have what it takes to pack our bags and take that leap of faith that everything will be just fine, I look to these friends who were brave, who knew what they wanted, and did what they needed to do to make it happen. I want to think Matt and I will be able to, but I'm not sure. I do know that these friends are my heroes and inspiration. Thank you all for being brave enough to chase your dreams, and help me keep my dream alive!

If you need some help keeping your dreams alive, here are some blogs that might inspire you. I know they inspire me!

Carol and David on their VI adventure at

Myra Nelson at

Sarah Morgan at

Normandie Fischer