Threats to the health of the oceans
These facts come from the Smithsonian Institution's Ocean Planet
exhibition and from the book Ocean Planet: Writings and Images of the Sea, by Peter Benchley and Judith
Gradwohl (published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., 100 5th Ave., New
York, N.Y. 10011)
- Oil spills account for only about five percent of the oil entering
the oceans. The Coast Guard estimates that for United States waters
sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil each year as
- Each year industrial, household cleaning, gardening, and automotive
products pollute water. About 65,000 chemicals are used commercially
in the United States today, with about 1,000 new ones added each
year. Only about 300 have been extensively tested for toxicity.
- It is estimated that medical waste that washed up onto Long Island
and New Jersey beaches in the summer of 1988 cost as much as $3
billion in lost revenue from tourism and recreation.
- The most frequently found item in beach cleanups is pieces of
plastic. The next four items are plastic foam, plastic utensils,
pieces of glass and cigarette butts.
- Lost or discarded fishing nets keep on fishing. Called "ghost nets,"
this gear entangles fish, marine mammals, and sea birds, preventing
them from feeding or causing them to drown. As many as 20,000
northern fur seals may die each year from becoming entangled in
- Air pollution is responsible for almost one-third of the toxic
contaminants and nutrients that enter coastal areas and oceans.
- When nitrogen and phosphorus from sources such as fertilizer, sewage
and detergents enter coastal waters, oxygen depletion occurs. One
gram of nitrogen can make enough organic material to require 15 grams
of oxygen to decompose. A single gram of phosphorus will deplete one
hundred grams of oxygen.
- The Mississippi River drains more than 40 percent of the continental
United States, carrying excess nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico.
Decay of the resulting algal blooms consumes oxygen, kills shellfish
and displaces fish in a 4,000 square mile bottom area off the coast
of Louisiana and Texas, called the "dead zone."
- In 1993, United States beaches were closed or swimmers advised not to
get in the water over 2,400 times because of sewage contamination.
The problem is even worse than the numbers indicate: there are no
federal requirements for notifying the public when water-quality
standards are violated, and some coastal states don't monitor water
- The zebra mussel is the most famous unwanted ship stowaway, but the
animals and plants being transported to new areas through ship
ballast water is a problem around the world. Poisonous algae,
cholera, and countless plants and animals have invaded harbor waters
and disrupted ecological balance.
- There are 109 countries with coral reefs. Reefs in 90 of them are
being damaged by cruise ship anchors and sewage, by tourists breaking
off chunks of coral, and by commercial harvesting for sale to
- One study of a cruise ship anchor dropped in a coral reef for one day
found an area about half the size of a football field completely
destroyed, and half again as much covered by rubble that died later.
It was estimated that coral recovery would take fifty years.
- Egypt's High Aswan Dam, built in the 1960s to provide electricity and
irrigation water, diverts up to 95 percent of the Nile River's normal
flow. It has since trapped more than one million tons of nutrient
rich silt and caused a sharp decline in Mediterranean sardine and
- The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that
of the seventeen major fisheries areas in the world, four are
depleted and the other thirteen are either fished to capacity or
- Commercial marine fisheries in the United States discard up to 20
billion pounds of non-target fish each year-- twice the catch of
desired commercial and recreational fishing combined.
- Almost half of all construction in the United States during the 1970s
and 1980s took place in coastal areas.
- Within thirty years a billion more people will be living along the
coasts than are alive today.
- With only 4.3 percent of the world population, Americans. We use
about one-third of the world's processed mineral resources, and about
one-fourth of the world's non-renewable energy sources, like oil and
Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan
gene carl feldman (firstname.lastname@example.org) (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)