By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish

THE ABOVE VIDEO IS GRAPHIC.

I was recently brought on by the team at Ten Daily to contribute think pieces surrounding the environment. My first post, about plastic in the oceans, is live on the site. Let me know what you think, and whilst you're at it, visit A Strawless Ocean to find ways to reduce (or totally eliminate) plastic from your day to day. 

Published by Ten Daily:

Your plastic straw's life doesn't end when you toss it in the bin.

Every year the world produces millions of tons of plastic, much of which is resistant to degradation. As a result, by 2050, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

It’s a sobering statistic, especially considering the plastic litter finding its way into our rivers and seas is man-made, discarded and wholly non-recyclable. The damage is done by the straws we use in our juices and sodas and the ones we get from take-away stores and restaurants. These quick convenience items are used once and thrown away; but they go on to live a second life in ocean gyres where they threaten our iconic biodiversity, litter coastlines and kill off fishes, turtles and other marine species like whales, sharks and dolphins.

While a ban on single-use plastic bags is right around the corner in Australia, with supermarket giants Woolworths and Coles implementing their bans on June 20 and July 1 respectively, plastic straws are still a common use for restaurants, markets and cafes. To date, no review for their ban has been actioned. In fact, in April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull deferred the issue to state governments, claiming a ban on plastic straws could impose additional costs and create more pollution. Despite pledges from other countries to ban the use of straws, including the United Kingdom, Australia has yet to commit to a no-straw zone, leaving a dark cloud over our response to plastic as an environmental issue.

It’s no secret that single-use plastics have a major impact. Estimates measure straw use at up to 500 million units every single day. Besides their short life span, single-use plastics never fully biodegrade and take hundreds of years to start breaking down. According to the UN Environment, plastic straws are among the ‘top ten’ items found littered along the world’s coastlines. They're manufactured with petroleum that emits carbon emissions and when discarded to a landfill, plastics form a carbon sink. Other plastics emit methane emissions, absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the atmosphere. The crude oil used to produce plastic requires mass amounts of energy and is the primary pollutant recovered in oil spills. Sadly, the BPA used to make plastic straws can never be recycled.

Tragically, marine plastic pollution is a serious danger to our bounty of marine and coastal wildlife: animals dwelling in water habitats consume marine litter in lieu of their natural prey, where the rubbish becomes lodged in the digestive tract and blocks the passage of food. Like starvation, strangulation by plastic pieces is not uncommonamong marine species like turtles and sea birds who become tangled and stuck in plastic bags, straws and bottles. In 2017, Nature reported that a shocking 40 percent of recovered ocean species contained some form of ingested or entangled plastic.

The full effect of plastic is not yet understood, but scientists agree that while plastic litter is a top environmental concern for wildlife, it’s damaging for human health too. Biomagnification (where plastic enters the food chain) is an emerging food concern, where smaller pieces of marine litter from plastics and straws are consumed by filter feeders like zooplankton, who are consumed by larger fish, and then caught and consumed by humans.

Despite a public plea from British PM Theresa May for Australia to ditch single-use plastic straws, in April, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held his ground, rejecting help from other countries and environmental organisations to reduce Australia’s straw uptake. His shifting of blame to state governments leaves everyday Australians in charge of their own plastic straw reduction, leaving marine wildlife along Australia’s coast dependent on social action in the absence of government help.

Luckily, in the interim, and until the Federal Government makes use of the National Waste Policy framework to drive a solution to straw pollution, there are simple ways to remove and reduce straws uptake your daily routine, including the use of alternative straws made from bamboo, metal and paper.

Until then, Australia remains left behind in the global fight against an environmental menace in the form of plastic straw pollution.

A short trip to Kuranda, Cairns
 
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Nestled within mountain ranges and along lush green canopy, Kuranda is a beautiful and quirky Cairns village in the far north's rainforest, accessible by scenic cable car and draped in rich Indigenous culture. It's wealth of native animals, including the endemic Kuranda tree frog (Litoria myola), and expansive tropical habitat transform Kuranda into a place where birds, koalas and butterflies can be quietly and closely observed along its jungle walks and within its wildlife reserves. There's platypus and crocodile and green tree snakes to see, but only for the most respectful of visitors. The winding hillsides are home to gaudy parrots, fig trees and illuminous Ulysses butterflies. And whilst set upon a backdrop of tragic Indigenous history, Kuranda now homes a population of 3000 locals who preserve its cultural roots, making this remote village one of Far North Queensland's most special and memorable hideaways. 

Whilst on assignment in Cairns, Australia, I took some time away to visit the Skyrail, taking their sweeping cable cars along the skyway to Kuranda, where I visited the locals and immersed myself in the complex Indigenous culture. With views of expansive canopy, mountain range and an endless ocean landscape, the cable car trip was a stunning forty-five minute ride from nearby Cairns city to the remote Indigenous village. I disembarked two or three times along the way to take botanic tours and photograph the diverse variety of trees and leaves around the scenic walkways. Some said they'd spotted lizards and koalas, and others collected pictures of colourful spiders and an array of coastal birds. 

Kuranda, a mountain village in Cairns, winds along forested hillside tracks that were carved out by it's early settlers. The village has a rich history and has been home to the Djbugay ("dja-bu-guy") people for tens of thousands of years. A massacre of Indigenous groups is thought to have taken place at Skeleton Creek several hundred years ago, and conflict arose between its Indigenous population and the Gadja (white man) when a railway was proposed after the hinterland was opened for mining gold and tin in the early 1880s. But despite it's dark history, Kuranda is proudly draped in its Indigenous arts and culture. And it's passersby surely agree; after the village established it's first 'rainforest markets' back in the late 1970s (where local craftspeople sold their works to attract new visitors to the area), the Kuranda markets now command thousands of people every day.

Whilst the 'village in the rainforest' is kept alive by it's booming tourism, it also presents a strong emphasis on preserving its natural habitats and wildlife (such as Kuranda's Koala Park and the Australian Butterfly Sanctuary). Budding ornithologists are met with bustling bird song, a joyous reward for eager bird watchers. If you look closely, harmless freshwater crocodiles might sun their bellies on the river banks, observed from above on the Skyrail. Platypus inhabit Kuranda, with the village one called Ngunbay, or, "the place of platypus." 

The Cairns-to-Kuranda-railway is a heritage listed site and journeys visitors from Redlynch to Crooked Creek Bridge and well over the stunning Barron Falls. A picturesque waterfall flows over the rock face of the Stoney Creek and Surprise Creek bridge. Being situated in the tropics, Kuranda's weather experiences only mild variations in temperature and only consists one of dry season and one wet season. The village's orographic influences mean Kuranda can be humid.

A far north hideaway with something for everyone, Kuranda is an essential visit for those looking for scenic trails, quiet observations, culture, arts, crafts and wildlife and conservation. 

A humble thank you to the Scenic Skyrail in Cairns for hosting me for this visit. You can view their cable car details on their website,www.skyrail.com.au, and book trips for up to six (or eight) cable car travellers at a time.

A little fish can have a big impact.
 
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I'm a big proponent of the idea that the littlest of things often have the biggest impact. Today, in a brief debate about whether or not eating fish is socially responsible, a person told me that fish aren’t clever and that, presumably to them, if fish aren't clever (and can’t feel pain and aren’t self-aware (which they are)), why should we care about their existence? Of course it should be obvious that without fish there is no marine ecosystem, and without a healthy sea human beings would die. But it made me a little sad to know that there are some people out there who don’t know how important tiny little things like fish actually are. As though somehow being a bigger and stronger animal is better and more important.

Importantly, fish have amazing cognitive abilities and hold records for their relative brain weights (in vertebrates). Memory, use of tools, social structure, use of deception, numeracy and social learning are just a few of the super smart things fish use to survive in the wild. And they’ve survived millions of years, much longer than humans have. Not only that, but cyanobacteria (tiny little prokaryotic microorganisms that were first discovered in deep sea vents) first pumped oxygen into our atmosphere a couple of billion years ago and account for more than 40% of all oxygen in the atmosphere today. Any scientist worth their salt will tell you that cyanobacteria aren’t cute, they certainly don’t feel pain and they aren’t self-aware like a puppy might be. But without them, life on earth would likely be very different.

I suppose the point is that everything is important and everything matters in life's ecosystem, even if that something is tiny like a fish and microscopic like a cyanobacteria.

More often than not the littlest of things have the biggest impact.

Elissa SursaraComment
Birds are dinosaurs.
 
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When people say that birds aren’t dinosaurs, I go from Elissa Sursara to Alan Grant incredibly quickly. Birds are most certainly living dinosaurs. In fact, they're theropod dinosaurs (or dinosaurs with three toed limbs) and they’re walking, nesting and flying amongst us every single day.

Achaeopteryx is the first bird-like dinosaur we know of, and the similarities between it and extinct dinosaurs are truly mind blowing. You’ve got hollow bones, gastroliths, skeleton formation, nest building, brooding behaviours, the morphology of their lungs and hearts, the way they sleep, how they reproduce, how they care for their babies, and literally millions upon millions of units of data from our molecular records.

So next time you see a bird, perhaps a vulture or a cassowary, remember you’re in the presence of a modern day dinosaur, and, as Dr. Alan Grant would tell you (if you were the sarcastic kid at the start of the best movie franchise ever), “try to show a little respect."

Left: I photographed this cassowary in Port Douglas, Queensland. 

Feminism or consumerism?
 
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As feminism finds its way into the mainstream conversation, I'm finding myself becoming more weary of an obsession with celebrity and consumer culture and the way it masquerades as activism for women.

I've seen “girl power” and “the future is female” plastered all over shop windows. Big bold words shoved in my face as though trying to convince me that buying their product somehow empowers me and the impoverished and vulnerable and disenfranchised women struggling through their every day. A wild guess tells me that most of these stores do very little for women’s rights, if anything at all for any kind of issue. “Girl power” is more aptly applied to the legendary Jane Goodall (and Malala Yousafzai, Emma Gonzalez, Shamma Mazrui, Audre Lorde and the badass Ahed Tamimi).

I don’t flick through the racks of a clothing store in search of feminism because it simply doesn’t live there. Real empowerment lives in the words and ideas of the many wonderful female figures making real differences around the world. They’re fighting for women in STEM, for equality and facing fourteen years in prison for their social activism. But their stories and their messages are eclipsed by a fascination with the very industries attempting to profit off their goal. Too much focus on celebrity gossip, and too little on fierce female activism. It’s not to say that feeling pretty in your new digs doesn’t personally empower you. But pop feminism is not a watershed movement for women because it does nothing but dilute the message. It traps feminism down into some weird consumer movement where buying shoes empowers you (but also exploits a female sweatshop worker).

It’s marketplace activism, and it’s less about dismantling systems and more about prepackaging a feel good message and kicking you in the guts every fortnight until you’ve Afterpaid it off. What sucks the most is that major industries are a terrific conduit for reaching new audiences to be engaged in social movements, and as yet, all they’ve really done is allow consumption to stand in for action.