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Where Have All the Fish Gone?

Ninety percent of the big fish on Earth are gone. Overfishing and pollution are the cause. Climate change is causing the oceans to warm and in many ways too is contributing to sucking oxygen from our seas, causing demise. Fish are forced to other areas. The marine ecosystem goes out of whack. Soon things begin to fall apart.

That is really what's happening. And this is important stuff because the seas comprise 70% of the Earth's surface and are home to 90% of all life on the planet. When they fail, so do we.

Beyond these prongs of destruction, the oceans are suffering from our waste. Some 80% of all marine pollution comes from land-based activities: picnicking, beach outings — trash pushed out to sea by wind, rivers and streams. Indeed, a garbage patch that is at least twice the size of Texas floats between San Francisco and Hawaii. It's made up of our refuse. Trash gets caught up in the currents and stays — has stayed — for decades. In this area, known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, there is six times as much plastic as zooplankton (important fish food). On a typical feeding day, the blue whale, for example, will consume between 4,000 and 16,000 pounds of zooplankton. Now put an exponent of six on that for plastic. You can see how plastic can easily get ingested by fish. And yet we wonder how mercury and other toxins end up in our seafood.

I get asked most about the Eastern Garbage Patch on my book tour. I was fortunate enough to have visited it while a scientific vessel trawled it. The Patch is a full chapter in my book, You Are Here. During a recent interview I did with Canadian public radio, the host and a number of callers were enthralled by the subject. Some listeners don't believe it exists. (Check my web site's comment section).

Alas, the patch exists. It is formed by the North Pacific Gyre, which is a vortex made by the California Current, the North Equatorial Current, and the Kuroshio Current that moves off the coast of Japan. Round and round the currents go keeping within it our garbage. In fact you can trace the waste from a garbage disposal in Boise to the Patch. Follow the Columbia River and you'll see how. (Gold sifters knew this too.)

And now I will front run and answer the most common question I get too: No, you cannot clean it up. The Pacific Ocean is too vast, too big. As Captain Charles Moore, perhaps the foremost expert on the Patch says, the best we can do is to prevent more refuse from getting into our oceans. He reminds that "there is no away" when we toss something. Everything comes back to us. This is the rationale for the cradle-to-grave and cradle-to-cradle concepts — making sustainable products whose toxic fate we shouldn't have to worry about.

On Thursday I will be speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, and you can bet I will be thinking about the Patch off its shore. It's something, if I am not asked, I will point to as shame.

It's time we learned to reduce and re-use even before we recycle. Recycling should be the last option. But many people don't operate that way. They recycle and then consume again. This is how the cycle continues to grow. We each produce twice as much waste — five pounds — as we did 40 years ago. Our landfills are 25 times the size they were just 15 years ago. Clearly something is wrong with this picture. When there isn't enough space on land, and our seas get compromised because of what we use and throw away, it's time to rethink our effect on the planet.

About a billion people rely on fish as their major source of their daily protein. We can't afford to have our seas fail any more than they are already.

Meanwhile, I am here in Los Angeles, which has the wonderful distinction of the worst traffic congestion, the worst air quality, and the world's largest operating landfill. The biggest landfill on Earth, of course, is Fresh Kills on Staten Island. It's no longer operating. But it's still said you can see it from outer space. Crazy.

There are some solutions to the mess we've gotten into. I'll talk about those tomorrow. That's right: Solutions! And they won't be typical.

÷ ÷ ÷

Thomas M. Kostigen is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller The Green Book. He writes the "Ethics Monitor" column for Dow Jones MarketWatch and the "Better Planet" column and blog for Discover magazine. He lives in Santa Monica, California. Visit his website at

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Green Book: The Everyday Guide...
    Used Trade Paper $1.95
  2. You Are Here: Exposing the Vital... Used Hardcover $5.48

Thomas Kostigen is the author of You Are Here: Exposing the Vital Link Between What We Do and What That Does to Our Planet

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