As warnings about our environment and the destruction of wildlife become ever more urgent, the world is, thankfully, starting to take action.
Moves are being made to decrease the amount of single use plastic, and protests are taking place to encourage the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency – we just have to hope those in power will admit to just how serious the issue is.
A lot of us don’t have much direct control over the really big issues, like deforestation and animal farming, but we can all do something to help the planet, and its inhabitants.
Whether it’s cleaning up a trash-ridden area, switching to palm oil-free products, or cutting back on meat, every small change can have a knock-on effect which is beneficial to the world.
However, there is one area which is harder for us to clean. Items discarded on beaches, thrown into rivers or abandoned by fishermen are clogging up the world’s oceans and seas, causing marine life to suffer constantly at the hands of human activity.
According to EcoWatch, at least 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year. 60-90 per cent of marine litter is plastic-based, with cigarette butts, plastic bags, fishing gear, and food and drink containers contributing to the most common forms of plastic pollution found in open water.
Unfortunately, the task of cleaning up the ocean isn’t as simple as coming across a stray can on your way to work and making sure it goes in the appropriate recycling bin. It requires equipment, time and dedication – but luckily Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners (NARC) have taken on the task.
The award winning charity is made up of volunteer SCUBA divers, who spend their time cleaning up the underwater world.
Since its inception in 2005, NARC has carried out over 2,000 clean-up dives around the UK, removing everything from fishing wire and lobster pots, to plastic bottles, shopping trolleys and, quite literally, a kitchen sink.
UNILAD spoke to Davey Jones – no relation to the locker – a trustee and volunteer secretary of NARC Pembrokeshire, Wales, who explained the organisation came about in the same way a lot of good ideas do – over a pint.
A local diver, Dave Kennard was dismayed by the amount of marine litter he was finding and decided, with Keep Wales Tidy, to start the group.
This was in 2005, making NARC the UK’s, and possibly Europe’s, first underwater clean-up group.
With over 2,000 clean-up dives, we have probably been as active as any other group worldwide.
NARC consists of 25 core volunteer divers and 6 trustees, though over the years hundreds of people have travelled miles to assist with the clean-up dives.
Davey went on to speak about the work of the group, explaining:
We have focused on awareness raising, behavior change and collaborative solutions.
Marine litter has been out of sight, out of mind for so long. One of the biggest changes we have seen in the last 15 years is the Blue Planet/David Attenborough effect, which has bought marine litter to public consciousness like never before.
Indeed, the ‘David Attenborough effect’ really has had a big impact on the world’s view on climate change.
Recently, the focus of his ever-enthralling documentaries has shifted from the habits of wildlife, to the effect human actions are having on that wildlife. Thankfully, Attenborough’s informative narration combined with eye-opening scenes of struggling animals, like sea turtles eating plastic, has encouraged many to change their ways.
A study by GlobalWebIndex revealed that awareness raising initiatives implemented over the last 12 months, including David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II and Netflix documentary Our Planet, have resulted in a 53 per cent drop in single use plastic among people in the US and UK.
Hopefully the drop in plastic usage will have a knock on effect in ensuring less of the material ends up in the ocean, but for now NARC still have their work cut out for them.
The divers choose their sites based on local knowledge and collaboration with fishermen, or they search estuaries or harbours, where people may be inclined to fly-tip rubbish.
Their clean-up events run from April until October, weather allowing, and in 2018 alone they carried out 144 dives. As well as flytipped trash, they focus on collecting commercial fishing gear and angling tackle which may have been left behind or lost in the sea due to, for example, storms.
In one dive, NARC once collected 10km of monofilament fishing line. Had the volunteers not collected it, the wire would likely have stayed in the ocean for hundreds of years, causing a constant threat of entanglement to marine life.
In 2018 alone, the divers freed 256 shellfish and fish from nets, traps, and angling line which had been left underwater.
Considerate humans freed the creatures, but mankind is the reason they were tangled in the first place.
If NARC saved 256 shellfish in 144 dives around the UK last year alone, then in all of the world’s oceans, over the many years we’ve been impacting upon them, the amount of wildlife which will have suffered must be staggering.
In taking part in the clean-up dives, Davey has had the rare opportunity to see firsthand exactly how our actions impact wildlife. He spoke about one of the most upsetting scenes he’s experienced, where the effect of human impact was devastatingly evident.
We have a number of globally important seabirds islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire. One of these is Grassholm, which is home to almost 100,000 gannets.
Sadly, they are using plastics, rope, angling line as nesting material now. This means that many of their chicks are trapped in their nests and unable to leave at the end of the breeding season.
While the act of fishing might seem like a relatively simple one, the knock-on effects can be disastrous – as is evident with the gannets in Grassholm.
Alongside fishing, flytipping is just as much of an issue.
One eye-opening photo shows a nest, home to some eggs, built on top of a shopping trolley:
Wildlife shouldn’t be forced to adapt to the presence of our waste – we should be considerate enough of the animals to realise the planet is their home as much ours.
Speaking about how people can help reduce the amount of litter which ends up in the ocean, Davey said:
Reduce, re-use, recycle, and refuse single use plastic. Something that gets used once, for minutes, will last in our environment for hundreds of years, often having a negative impact.
We live on Planet Ocean, an ocean that provides at least 50 per cent of the air we breathe. We cannot live without healthy, functioning seas.
While it is important to make an impact on a personal level, marine litter is a global problem that requires global solutions, which include Government, industry, business and public effort.
Think about what you buy, where it may end up. Keep it high on the public agenda – write to MPs demanding change.
While not all of us can assist in cleaning the depths of the ocean, we can do our part in making sure less waste ends up there in the first place by following Davey’s advice.
NARC gives the wildlife in many trash-ridden areas around the UK a fighting chance – their work should not only be acknowledged, but celebrated.
You can donate to Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners here.
If you have a story you want to tell, send it to [email protected]
Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.