A place to go swimming, surfing and SUPing. But also a daily source of fresh sardines and mackerel. Living in the Algarve means living near the sea. Apart from the western border with Spain, the south of Portugal is basically surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, the oceans are polluted by over 5 trillion (that’s 5 million million, aka a f*ckload of) plastic particles. If we want to enjoy a dip in the water in the future, it’s time to save the seas.
Pictures by Pierre Bouras
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016
Exactly that is what the Aquapower Expedition attempted. In 2015, a group of watersport athletes led by professional wind surfer Florian Jung set off on a 72 days epic surf adventure across the Atlantic Ocean: from Guadeloupe, via the Azores, to mainland Europe. However, this trip was more than just shredding awesome waves; the group’s main ambition was to make people aware of the beauty of the ocean and how to protect it. An important mission, seeing as over 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered by water and without it, we wouldn’t exist.
North Atlantic Garbage Patch
In this water, a lot of trash is floating around. Carrier bags, broken fishing nets, empty cans: they all lead to a polluted ocean. Especially plastic, which makes up between 60 to 80% of the total marine debris. If you’d put them all on the beach, the over 5 trillion plastic particles that are currently floating in the oceans would cover every single metre of coast line on this planet. Also within the Atlantic Ocean there’s a garbage patch, located several thousand kilometres west of the Algarve. This North Atlantic Garbage Patch consists of man-made debris, all swept there and held together by winds and currents.
One of the main objectives of the Aquapower Expedition was to make the North Atlantic Garbage Patch visible. Because unlike you’d expect, the patch is not a collection of plastic bottles, packaging and toys; it’s more like tiny plastic pieces floating in otherwise clear water. “To visualise the plastic pollution we collected regularly samples en route with a so-called plankton net (a miniature fishing net with a mesh size of 0.3 mm, usually used to catch tiny planktonic animals such as fish and shellfish larvae). We’d haul this net behind the catamaran for approximately one hour,” explains Aquapower Expedition team member and marine biologist Dr. Frauke Bagusche (pictured below and on side note with the plankton net).
We were shocked by the amount of plastic particles polluting the ocean
The results of these measurements were upsetting. “In every single sample we took, we found microplastic particles,” recalls Frauke. “They mainly consisted of degenerated PVC, small pieces of plastic foil and many tiny fibres potentially deriving from fishing nets, ropes and polyester clothing. Even though literature has taught us about microplastic, we were shocked to see the sheer amount of those particles polluting the ocean, covering its surface like a blanket. Here, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles away from land, the saying ‘If you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it is not there’ was sadly proven right.”
The even worse news is that plastic never really goes away; it isn’t biodegradable so it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces that can still be around after 10,000 years. These pieces are being swallowed by all kinds of sea creatures, the really tiny ones by whales who mistake them for plankton. Not just the marine creatures suffer – yes, those freshly grilled sardines you just bought on a local market probably have some plastic in their belly, enjoy your meal – but also the birds. Marine pollution studies indicate that by 2050 almost every seabird will have eaten plastic, leading to serious health problems and increased mortality rates. That of course includes the dozens of bird species visiting the Algarve every autumn.
Educating the next generation
In Guadeloupe, we found bags, bottles and cigarette buds lining the beaches
And we humans are at fault. Scientific studies show that over 80% of plastic waste in the regional seas and oceans is from land-based sources. Luckily, awareness is slowly increasing. Along with climate change, marine plastic debris is now considered as one of the most pressing environmental threats of modern days. However, according to Frauke, who is also founder of The Blue Mind, an organisation which aims to conserve and protect marine environments, this isn’t enough. “This pollution problem needs to be emphasised more in schools, media and politics in order to prevent plastic entering aquatic ecosystems.” She thinks education is key in this matter: “If more people realise that they can influence the state of our oceans with their actions, the oceans still have a chance to recover.”
So next to measuring plastic particles, the Aquapower Expedition team also organised beach clean-ups and talks. Contrary to the Algarve, where the stretches of sand are mostly clean, this isn’t always the case in other parts of the world. We share the same ocean, but not the same attitude. In Portugal, as of February 2015 light plastic shopping bags aren’t free anymore, a result of the Green Tax which should lead to less waste. About time: more plastic has been produced in the last ten years than in the whole 20th century. In the Caribbean though, plastic still prevails.
Frauke explains: “In Guadeloupe, we found plastic bags, plastic bottles and cigarette buds lining the beaches. The country is beautiful, but the coasts are littered. In cooperation with Ecole de la Mer, an ocean school located at the Aquarium of Guadeloupe, we held a beach clean-up with 30 of their pupils. On the basis of the collected litter, we explained the negative impacts of pollution on animals, the marine environment and us humans in order to help educating the next generation of young conservationists. It was important to us to work with children and teenagers, as they’re our future . Also, they’re the ones who have to deal with the problems previous generations have caused.”
Protect what you love
We all depend on the ocean; it’s our lifeline
These problems are seen by Frauke, who’s a keen diver, on almost a daily basis. “Due to my job I’ve repetitively worked in the Maldives, a beautiful but very polluted country with a massive plastic problem as it lacks a nationwide recycle system. Most of the garbage there ends up in the ocean: floating blue plastic bags, plastic water bottles and nappies are a common sight whilst swimming, diving and snorkelling.” With this expedition and her own organisation The Blue Mind, Frauke is trying to spread the word and increase awareness about the importance of healthy oceans. “We all depend on the ocean, it is our lifeline responsible for the Earth’s climate, marine algae produce about 70% of the global oxygen and it’s a very important food source for millions of people.”
Normally, people care for things they love. That’s why a big part of the Aquapower Expedition was about showing the beauty of the ocean and its diverse creatures. Various pictures and video clips have been made and allow you to see the waves and whales through the eyes of local scientists, environmentalists and surfers and windsurfers. Have a look at their website and see for yourself why this is worth saving. For the team members, it was about protecting the environment they love and where they spend most of their time.
“The ocean is not only my office. It’s also the place where I feel home, a place that calms me down, cheers me up, a place that simply makes me happy,” says Frauke. “I feel very privileged to be able to travel around the world studying the ocean and its ecosystems and to share my knowledge, enthusiasm and love for the sea with others. It’s very rewarding when I give talks about ocean pollution and weeks later receive emails of people telling me how they have changed their consumer behaviour. Pollution, climate change and overfishing are threatening marine ecosystems: we must act now and change the way we live. I cannot accept that we are cutting our lifeline due to our behaviour and therefore I do whatever I possibly can to raise people’s awareness in order to help protecting the ocean.”
Although most of us probably don’t spend as much time in the sea as Frauke does, living in the Algarve means that we’re able to enjoy it every day. Whether you’re a hard core surfer, an active sailor, an easy paddler or someone who prefers to just walk on the beach and overlook the big deep blue. Therefore it’s also our duty to preserve this environment. Because if the ocean dies, so do we.
See original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine February 2016