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“Saving the Sargasso Sea: Environmental Challenges and Leadership Opportunities within the North Atlantic Ocean Plastic Crisis”

Trips

Dave Ford, CEO, SoulBuffalo

Casson Trenor, Strategic Comms Director, SoulBuffalo

Introduction

The Sargasso is the world’s only sea without shores. Hidden deep within the Atlantic Ocean, the Sargasso is far from any coastline. Its borders are delineated by its own unique ecosystem, which has historically been fed by the currents of the North Atlantic Gyre. Unfortunately, due to rampant plastic pollution around the world, we stand to lose the Sargasso and its critical ecosystem services forever.

Global plastic production has reached astounding levels, setting new records on an annual basis. In 2015 alone, 322 million metric tons of plastic were produced. The reality of this number is difficult to envision; suffice it to say that it equates to nearly one thousand skyscrapers, each the size of the Empire State Building. Far too much of this plastic is finding its way into the world’s oceans, where it eventually makes its way into an oceanic gyre. The Sargasso is just one of the ocean’s many ecosystems threatened by the poisoning of the gyres; this is a rampant problem that spans the globe. More than ever before, the world is in desperate need of champions to rise up and take on this critical issue.

Our organization, SoulBuffalo, is a global expedition and leadership development company that focuses on utilizing urgent global issues like this as opportunities for executive learning and development while also seeking to contribute to solutions. By engaging with critical environmental and social crises, executive teams can boost company leadership, transform corporate culture, and make a positive impact on the world. These opportunities are at their most promising when they focus on the greatest challenges facing our planet: challenges that ignore national borders, impact multilayered networks of ecosystems, and that demand navigation of a high degree of complexity. In this spirit, there is perhaps no greater opportunity than that offered by the Sargasso Sea.

Background

There is a strange quirk of human behavior that drives us to split our world into pieces. Perhaps this is due to the difficulty in comprehending our planet and its marvels all at once. Perhaps it is a need to assert our significance in the face of something so vast and ancient. Perhaps it is something else entirely. Whatever the cause, our tendency to compartmentalize our environment has dominated our interaction with the world. We portion, name, and claim each scrap of this world, and as we do, our actions underscore the pervasive myth that this world can in be effectively managed through a piece-by-piece approach. This is a dangerously erroneous assumption. We live within a dynamic system of interdependent ecosystems that cannot be truly separated, and attempting to do so can get us into trouble.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this approach is the segmentation of our ocean. The Mediterranean, Caribbean, and South China Seas are just three examples of human perspective attempting to compartmentalize specific parts of the massive saline reservoir that encircles the world. To delineate bodies of water from one another is to miss a critical reality that, although obvious, still somehow continues to be ignored: our oceans do not have walls. Earth’s oceanography is dominated by a single interconnected system of currents and upwellings that winds its way around the planet. This system is responsible for moving water around the planet, providing the hydrological interchange and confluence necessary to support life.

As the Earth revolves, its rotation twists these currents into churning eddies. These massive, slow-moving whirlpools are known as gyres. There is at least one gyre in every major ocean; the five primary examples are the Indian Ocean, North Atlantic, North Pacific, South Atlantic, and South Pacific gyres. The spinning, grasping waters of these gyres serve as a sort of magnetic field for the flotsam that festoons the surface of the sea. They draw material into their centers, creating zones that are highly concentrated with floating objects. These objects can provide purchase and shade, in turn attracting a variety of organisms. The greed and gravity of the North Atlantic gyre in particular has created the unique ecosystem that we know as the Sargasso.

The Sargasso Sea

The Sargasso is unlike any other body of water on Earth. It is constrained not by shorelines, but rather by the whirling currents of the North Atlantic gyre. The Sargasso is named for its collection of Sargassum seaweed — a unique marine plant that has adapted to spend its entire lifecycle without attaching to anything. The two species of sargassum, S. fluitans and S. natans, may have evolved within the clockwise gyre of the Sargasso Sea, developing specialized features that help them survive a life spent adrift, such as the spherical gas bladders on their stems that aid in buoyancy. The currents surrounding the Sargasso Sea keep the sargassum contained and allow it to thrive without being dispersed.

Columbus first documented encounters with sargassum in his expedition diaries in 1492. Columbus wrote of his sailors’ fears that the windless calms that his ships endured in the Sargasso Sea would prevent them from returning to Spain, and that the algal mats they encountered hid reefs on which they would run aground. Such fears became entrenched in Sargasso Sea lore for centuries afterward.

The extensive and intricate mats of seaweed provide habitat for a variety of organisms that are found only in this region (aka “endemic species”), including multiple species of fish, snails and crabs that are specially adapted to blend in with the sargassum. The Sargasso Sea also serves as crucial spawning grounds for eels and marlin, a nursery for juvenile sea turtles, and as feeding/hunting grounds for birds and pelagic fish. Recently, however, these ecosystem services have been heavily compromised as the sargassum of the North Atlantic has been polluted, bit by bit, with plastic.

The Impacts of Plastic Pollution

As previously discussed, plastic production levels around the world are at an all-time high. While these figures are impressive from a certain perspective, it’s important to note that they do not exist in a vacuum. This immense outflow is coupled with inadequate global recycling services and highly porous waste disposal streams. The majority of discarded plastic doesn’t end up in landfills and recycling depots — rather, it is cast off (purposefully or otherwise) in uncontrolled environments, and rides rain, rivers, and sewers until it reaches the ocean. These waste streams continuously dump plastic into our oceans, while simultaneously, increasing global fishing pressure unceasingly depletes the world’s overall marine biomass. Our behavior has put us on course for a terrifying paradigm shift: by 2050, scientific projections indicate that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish.

Plastic does not provide the same services as organic biomass. Creatures eat it, but it provides no nourishment and is impossible to digest; a simple internet search returns dozens of photos of marine animals that have starved to death with bellies full of plastic. Turtles and birds are suffocated by single-use plastic bags and strangled by discarded six-pack rings. Fed by these constant streams of waste, the gyres have accumulated masses of plastic of astounding size. The size of the North Pacific gyre is often compared to the state of Texas, and the others are not far behind. This is a staggering amount of garbage, and the problem is compounded by the fact that a great portion of this jettisoned plastic is largely invisible.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of plastic pollution is its tendency to break down into microscopic pieces that can take the place of organic matter. These tiny particles are known as nurdles, and even though they are too small to see with the naked eye, they pose a grave threat to our oceanic ecosystems. Nurdles can persist in the ocean for centuries, taking the place of phytoplankton and zooplankton to clog the gills and stomachs of aquatic animals.  Indeed, the world’s gyres have become deathtraps.

As mentioned, these whirling engines do not only exert their forces upon materials that were discarded in their immediate vicinity. The constant interchange of water throughout the world’s oceans eventually bears waste from around the globe within reach of one of the principle gyres. A sailor passing through the core of the Indian Ocean gyre could encounter Carrefour bags from a supermarket in Morocco, a Faygo six-pack ring that slipped into Lake Michigan, or a Japex oil barrel that fell off of a tanker in Osaka. The plastic problem in the world’s oceans is a global matter, and taking on a problem with such an international scope will require a response in kind.

An Opportunity for Champions

One has only to sift through the jetsam clogging the oceanic gyres to see the thumbprints of the world’s largest companies. Water bottles and single-use bags emblazoned with imminently recognizable brand names leave no doubt as to the source of this pollution. It is true that plastic enters the ocean not because of who produced it, but rather because disposal systems do not effectively mitigate global waste streams. At the same time, however, one could argue that producers should be held responsible for solving the problem as they are the ones creating the plastics in question. Interestingly, it may be that these companies are in fact the best potential candidates to resuscitate our ailing oceans.

Multi-national corporations have the reach to approach global problems on a global scale. They have the connections, resources, and chains of custody necessary to tackle a challenge of this magnitude. No branding executive wants to be confronted with viral photos showing her company’s products spilling out of the ruptured stomach of a dead albatross; removing plastic from the waste stream is beneficial for the planet as well as for a corporation’s image.

The oceans need our help, and managing the plastic pollution issue is will be critical piece of any effective solution. A multinational company that currently contributes to the quagmire may be the perfect candidate to rescue imperiled ecosystems like the Sargasso Sea. No doubt globally minded consumers will rise up to support a company that is willing to stand up for our planet, and the plastic choking our oceans offers an opportunity for companies complicit in the problem to remedy it.

SoulBuffalo’s Sargasso expedition is a platform for the world’s top companies to develop internal leadership and pioneer innovative solutions by confronting one of the most challenging issues on the planet. The kind of results forged by this type of experience cannot be mimicked or synthesized by some other means. This is a unique and powerful opportunity for meaningful transformation on multiple levels.

If you are interested to learn more about this program or others for your organization, you can contact us directly through SoulBuffalo’s website or email me directly at dave@soulbuffalo.com.