Even the far reaches of the Arctic oceans cannot escape the unending tide of plastic pollution. A new report from Norwegian researchers has found that everywhere they looked (no matter how remote), they discovered traces of plastic.
Compiled by the Norwegian Polar Institute and presented at the Arctic Frontiers conference held this week, the scientists hope their finds will finally push politicians to do something and spur more research into the impact that plastics have on the Arctic ecosystem. Now, it seems the Norwegian government might be waking up to the problems we are facing.
“It's disturbing – there's nowhere on Earth that's so far away that its [sic] not affected by plastics,” Ola Elvestuen, Norway's environment Minister, told BBC News. “This should be a call for action. It's been known about for years, but the magnitude of it hasn't been taken in as it should have been. We must stop the plastic pollution.”
The main source of plastics in the Arctic is actually from the fishing industry. It is estimated that around 80 percent of the plastics found in the icy waters has been thrown over the sides of boats or cut loose when nets have become entangled.
In many cases, this pollution becomes “ghost gear”, drifting through the sea and entangling marine creatures before being washed ashore. Even then, it can get caught in the antlers of reindeer and kill them. This is not to mention all the smaller pieces that are eaten by fish and birds that mistake the plastics for food.
“We are finding more and more plastic waste in Svalbard, where I work,” Geir Wing Gabrielsen, who has helped author this latest report, told BBC News. “The northern fulmar breeds in Svalbard. At the end of the 1970s we found very few plastic in their stomachs. In 2013 when we last investigated, some had more than 200 pieces of plastic in their stomachs.”
Despite the historic behavior of the fishing industry, some fishermen have woken up to how damaging their practices are. Those in Norway are concerned that the amount of pollution now found in Arctic waters – even though most of it has come from them – is harming their reputation for fish from pristine environments.
The researchers are also worried about a ticking time bomb. We have been polluting the seas with plastics for decades, and as it breaks down into tiny pieces, it floats to the surface of the water, which is also the first to freeze. They now think that as the Arctic sea ice continues to melt, it will release huge amounts of plastics back into the water.