We Canadians have an inseparable connection with the sea. The Atlantic and Pacific embrace us east and west, and the Arctic Ocean shelters us like a giant frozen dome. From life-giving rain to life-saving medicines, from seafood gathered on the ocean floor to goods transported on the ocean surface, from the oxygen we breathe to the biodiversity that holds together the web of life — the ocean plays a vital role in our lives.
We humans can trace our origins back to single-celled protozoa that lived in the ocean over three billion years ago. Since then, the very same water has been sloshing around on the planet — 97.5 per cent of it in the ocean at any one time. It constantly evaporates into the atmosphere and returns to the earth as rain, fog, sleet, or snow. Thanks to this never-ending journey, called the hydrologic cycle, the drop of water an Apatosaurus gulped from a pool 150 million years ago could be the very same one that quenches your thirst today. We are forever linked with the ocean — our source of life in space and time.
What Do We Give Back to the Sea?
The sea, in turn, is linked with us by way of an endless flow of water through a network of pipes, sewers, lakes, and streams. Whether or not we live near the ocean, pollution and garbage from all parts of Canada end up in strange and faraway places.
We send a deadly brew of untreated sewage, household hazardous wastes, industrial pollutants, radioactive contaminants, agricultural run-off, and crude oil sluicing into our seas. Pollution kills countless ocean creatures, impacting hardest on coastal zones. These waters, as it happens, are the ocean’s richest in biodiversity and the ocean resources we depend on most.
Marine debris of all descriptions is also building up in our seas. It can be anything we throw away daily — plastic bags, fast-food containers, pop cans, glass bottles, cigarette butts, helium balloons, fishing gear, cables, rope. You name it, and it’s in the ocean.
How Does It Get There?
Let’s say a plastic bag falls through a sewer grate in your community. Like anything else that goes down the drain, it would flow through a long maze of sewer pipes. Along with an unwholesome stew of other solid and liquid filth, it would then continue through an intricate network of streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes, and ponds. All waters from this network collect in a vast, sunken area, known as a drainage basin, which empties into a salt-water body.
Canada’s five major drainage basins are named after their final destinations: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, as well as Hudson Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
In which drainage basin do you live? In which ocean would garbage and pollution end up if it washed down the drain in your part of Canada?
Activity: Where Does Your Garbage Go?
Where your garbage goes — or doesn’t go — can make a difference between ocean sickness and ocean health. Can you match the actions (numbered) with consequences (lettered) to correctly link human activities with wildlife impacts on this chart (PDF)? Keep in mind that pollutants can reach the ocean through drainage basins as well as air currents.
1-H: Keeping marine debris out of the ocean saves dolphins, sea turtles, and many other creatures from death or injury. Composting, recycling, and buying minimally packaged goods are just a few of the ways in which you can help to keep the sea free of debris.
2-G: Grounded tankers dump 140 million litres of crude oil into the ocean every year. Ten times that much oil is spilled into the environment through the smaller, daily operations of ships, offshore rigs, and refineries. These oil spills ravage marine ecosystems, harming countless creatures, including mammals, seabirds, and molluscs.
3-F: Canadians dump 30 million litres of used motor oil into storm drains each year. This toxic material causes health problems, such as liver disease in fish and cancer in humans. Other household hazardous wastes that end up our waters include weed killers, battery acids, and turpentine.
4-E: A quarter of Canadians live without any se wage treatment in their communities. About 500 billion litres of raw sewage, containing human waste, toxic pollutants, disease-spreading vi ruses and bacteria, and other ingredients, gush into our waters every year. Untreated sewage contaminates fish and shellfish, making them unsafe to eat. Beaches polluted with sewage are regularly closed to the public.
5-D: People across Canada are discovering the dramatic benefits a well-planned clean-up can bring to a seacoast, lakefront, or riverside. In addition to picking up marine debris, participants record the types and amounts of litter found. This data allows scientists to identify sources of garbage and to plan strategies that make shorelines safer for wildlife and people.
6-C: Not only do lost nets, ropes, lines, and other fishing gear strip the seas of life, they also diminish fishers’ catches. Garbage dumped by fishing boats, cargo vessels, and recreational craft can also harm ships when it clogs up water intake pipes, blocks pumping systems, and fouls boat propellers.
7-B: Governments have banned or restricted some of the most dangerous pesticides, including DDT, lindane, dieldrin, and toxaphene, which can poison aquatic life, damage ecosystems, and harm human health.
8-A: Every day activities, like riding in cars, heating our homes, and using electricity produced by burning fossil fuels, can cause air pollution. Contaminants enter the atmosphere and ride jet streams and trade winds many thousands of kilometres to the Arctic. They become more concentrated with each step upward in the food chain – for instance, from ice algae to amphipods to arctic cod to ringed seals to polar bears.
© Canadian Wildlife Federation
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