Marine litter, or debris, is fundamentally linked to human activity. Through industrial activity and incorrect waste disposal, tonnes of debris enter the marine environment every single day, equating to roughly 10 million tonnes each year. Litter enters the marine environment directly from discarding on vessels, or through terrestrial sources, either through river or drainage systems (Derraik, 2002). This litter, not only creates unappealing aesthetics for a coastal area, but also causes many serious complications for marine life.
A wide range of marine animals, including seabirds, invertebrates, turtles, fish, and marine mammals, can easily become entangled resulting in serious, and often fatal, injury (Kuhn et al., 2015). Entanglement, poses a particular threat to marine mammals, like seals and dolphins. In Irish waters, over half of all seal deaths between 1994 and 1999 were as a result of accidental entanglement, be it in active fishing nets, or discarded debris (Rogan et al., 2001). Further to this, previous studies carried out on the impact of ghost nets in deep-water gillnet fisheries have also suggested that this source of marine litter may represent a significant source of unaccounted mortality for both target and by-catch species. Additionally, litter can be eaten by many sea creatures, causing digestive problems and eventual death. For example, 13 sperm whales found stranded in the North Sea area in 2015, were found to have eaten fishing nets, car parts, and even a plastic bucket, before stranding along the German coastline. Sea birds, are the most commonly threatened group by ingestion marine littler.
Current studies show that over 70% of all seabirds have some form of marine
litter in their stomachs, with plastics being the major contributor (Wilcox et al., 2015). On the seafloor, many benthic organisms can die from anoxia (lack of oxygen) as a result of marine debris smothering the substratum (Moore, 2008). This would pose serious dangers to areas like seagrass beds, found commonly around the Irish coast e.g. Barley Cove, Lough Hyne.
Plastic litter is causing huge problems for marine life but also the beauty of the country that draws so many tourists to our shores. Initiatives like Tidy Towns and An Taisce’s Clean Coasts, are helping to combat these problems. In 2014 alone, beach clean ups run by Clean Coasts noted thousands of individual pieces of litter on our nation’s beaches: over 5,000 plastic bottles, 4,000 aluminium cans, over 2,000 pieces of rope and netting (www2). Work like this does seem to be improving the situation in West Cork though. In 2015, 5 beaches were awarded Blue Flags, as a symbol of high quality bathing waters and beach cleanliness. These beaches are: Ring, Barleycove, Tragumna, Owenahincha, and Inchydoney, the last of which was also awarded Cork’s only Green Coast Award