Sewage Surfer offers hope!

Seahorse clings to cotton bud ©Justin Hofman

How does this seahorse drifting on a plastic cotton bud make you feel? Saddened. Disgusted. Or hopeful and inspired?

Upon first glance, I was confused. Why is this adorable seahorse being dwarfed by a pink, plastic cotton bud? This quickly turned to shock. Soon followed by heartbreak and anger. Why is this beautiful creature riding ocean currents on man-made plastic? How unnatural, I thought.

But then my despair transformed into hope. This is what the world needs to see, I thought. What better way to illustrate the issue of pollution in our seas? I am hopeful this image will have a huge global impact.

Sewage Surfer. Photo: Justin Hofman

Photo: Justin Hofman

Justin Hofman captured the image of this small estuary seahorse (Hippocampus kuda), in Borneo.

It has now come to the world’s attention as a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. Seahorses, who are poor swimmers due to their shape, frequently anchor themselves to eel grasses and corals. Although never before has the world been shown a seahorse riding ocean currents on litter. Litter that we have created and allowed to enter the sea.

Plastic is entering the seas at an alarming rate. The statistic “there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050” is frequently quoted (predicted after studies by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation). According to the Plastic Oceans Foundation, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic pollution is dumped into our oceans every year.

How, you may ask? We have developed a throwaway society, where 50% of plastics created are used just once and then disposed of. Unfortunately, much of this plastic is entering the marine environment due to our everyday behaviours: litter flows through storm drains, down rivers and blows onto, or is left on, beaches.

There will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundtion

This is a global issue, with local consequences. Just last week, I saw first-hand a seal on Walney Island, Cumbria with plastic stuck around his neck, forming a collar. Frequent beach cleans along the Lancashire coast, show a proliferation of litter, predominantly plastic, washing up from the Irish Sea. But what about those cotton buds…

The Marine Conservation Society found cotton bud sticks to be the sixth most commonly collected item on UK beach cleans in 2016. Seemingly people are flushing these down the toilet… in their millions! Due to their small size, they can squeeze through sewage filters.

Plastic persists in the oceans for hundreds of years, absorbing and concentrating toxins in seawater. So those innocent looking plastic cotton bud sticks are actually highly dangerous to marine life if eaten; releasing toxic chemicals and potentially causing starvation. This has a knock on effect up the food chain and ultimately to us, affecting the quality and quantity of food that we harvest from the seas.

Cotton bud sticks collected on Crosby beach

Photo: Sally Tapp

Plastic cotton bud sticks

These were all collected in just thirty minutes on Crosby Beach, Merseyside. 

Thankfully, marine pollution is receiving an increasing amount of attention – and with this attention comes huge potential and hope. Justin Hofman said of his photograph, “It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist, but now that it does I want everyone to see it.”

Seahorse clings to cotton bud ©Justin Hofman

Seahorse clings to cotton bud ©Justin Hofman

It’s a photo that I wish didn’t exist, but now that it does I want everyone to see it.
Justin Hofman

With knowledge comes power. And this increased knowledge of marine plastic pollution has the power to change attitudes and behaviours. Thanks to public campaigns and pressure, numerous British retailers have committed to ‘Switch the Stick’ and from December 2017 will manufacture 100% biodegradable paper stems. Great news for our seas and marine life.

This week Sir David Attenborough has shared a message of optimism in relation to “one of the worst scourges of the planet”. He believes that if we all get together, deal with plastic disposal technically and stop putting plastics into the sea, there is a strong case for hope.

I too, believe there is reason to be hopeful and positive. The image of the seahorse grasping a cotton bud has raised awareness of the plight of the oceans to a wider audience and has hopefully pulled at the heart strings of many, who have previously had little interaction with this issue. Let’s hope that people will make simple lifestyle changes that will have a huge impact.

Here are just three things that everyone can do to make a difference:

1. Reduce your reliance on single use plastic

2. Only flush Pee, Poo and Paper down the toilet

3. Switch the Stick and only use paper stemmed cotton buds

So help us spread the word, share this knowledge with others and campaign for positive changes.

Thank you Justin Hofman, for illustrating plastic pollution in our seas and making the world aware. Thank you for giving us hope that we can make a difference to the health of the oceans.

What we are doing

Across the North West, the Wildlife Trust’s Living Seas team are working hard to make a difference, by engaging and educating local communities. We work with schools, community groups and members of the public; leading events to raise awareness of marine pollution issues and to encourage simple lifestyle changes.

Please see our Events page for information of upcoming events, including regular beach cleans (with a special focus of bud hunting at the moment!)