Ocean Plastic(ity)

***This blog may contain content that some readers may find disturbing. Reader’s discretion advised.***

Marine debris- noun. Human-created materials that end up in the ocean or Great Lakes intentionally or unintentionally.

Plastic. Contrary to what Aqua praises in her 1997 hit, it’s not fantastic.

It has become such a problem that National Geographic dedicated their June 2018 issue to the movement of #Planetorplastic, urging people to be more conscious of their plastic consumption and raising awareness of this indestructible material we’ve created in our throwaway culture. News reports consist of whales and other marine animals dying of suffocation or starvation after eating plastics bags. Or an account of a straw getting stuck in a turtle’s nostril. Or seals with plastic six-pack rings around their necks. Marine organisms are, unfortunately, the canary in the coal mine to our ocean’s health.

Promotional poster for ALBATROSS, a documentary about the albatrosses of Midway Island.

On the islands of Midway, dead albatrosses have been cut open to reveal the truth of our ocean’s dire state. Chris Jordan, a filmmaker, and his team led ALBATROSS, a documentary that focuses on the albatrosses of the Midway islands. I was aware of this project while it was in the making and its screening could not have come in a more timely manner that aligns with the marine debris crisis.

Oregon State University hosted a screening and though I walked in late, it didn’t take long for me to catch onto what was happening; I knew the all-too-familiar fate of animals who consume indigestible plastic particles. In addition to documenting the success of albatrosses that were able to continue their life at sea, the filmmakers capture final moments of albatrosses that weren’t able to continue their life journey beyond the islands. A man, who I presume to be Jordan himself, mourns and sheds tears for those who didn’t make it. He then shares what seems to be a silent prayer, asking the bird for permission to expose to the world what it’s done to it. Scissors are used to perform an autopsy of the avian. Among the bodily slime, shards and fragments of plastic ranging in all colors of the rainbow are picked out of its digestive tract. The genuine emotion that is shown for the birds on film evokes the possible feelings within the viewer: sadness, fear, anger, disgust, despair, or hope.

The solution seems so obvious; reduce waste, avoid single-use materials. But there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. And to whatever solutions that are out there, it’s not that simple. Recycling requires lots of energy and doesn’t necessarily compensate for the rate of which materials are being produced, not to mention that many parts of the world don’t have the infrastructure to host recycling facilities. Reusing jars to fill with bulk items can be costly for the consumer, who may not have the financial stability to engage in that lifestyle. Biodegradable plastics likely won’t decompose in a landfill given that the conditions aren’t right. Sure, each little step does make a difference but it’s also important to realize that the answer isn’t as easy as it seems.

For those who do want guidance on what they can do to help, I have some suggestions on my blog mentioned below. But I’m not here to preach what everyone must do to save the world because I think it’s condescending and unnecessary. I’m here to bring awareness to the topic, albeit on a slightly pessimistic level. My research will look at how marine debris is communicated over online communication platforms such as social media, websites, and blogs. There’s no doubt that the message is clear; marine debris is a global crisis and it’ll take a global effort to combat the problem. But what effect does an image have on someone’s decision to make conscious efforts or even care about the topic for that matter? There might not be a way to know and I think that is the hardest part to accept.

 

ALBATROSS is available for all to watch online, viewer’s discretion advised:
https://www.albatrossthefilm.com/watch-albatross

I invite you to visit my travel blog where I’ve included a section dedicated to marine debris:
https://asealesstraveled.weebly.com/marine-debris.html

For more information on National Geographic’s June 2018 plastic issue, visit:
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/planetorplastic/

The Narrative Behind Saving the World

Over the course of the past two terms, I’ve been trying to find a research topic (as one does in grad school), and though I went through multiple iterations of similar ideas, I’ve recently taken note of my interest in narratives in which stories that are told can be incredibly powerful and yet malleable. Documentaries, in particular, include video clips and music which are framed and edited to deliberately tug at our heartstrings. These carefully made media pieces are a type of window to a world we normally wouldn’t have access to which then makes us feel things that we usually don’t. There is intention with every second that plays on the screen. And because we label some films to be documentaries, we believe the things that are said to be true. After all, the Google definition of a documentary is “a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.” But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that documentaries are made by people with certain perspectives and worldviews. It’s even possible that facts are selected out of context to sway others into believing the desired message. To deceive people into thinking what you want them to believe seems taboo but it happens all of the time, as it is an inherent trait of telling a story.

Oregon State University celebrating 150 years of excellence being one of two schools in the nation with land, sea, sun, and sky grants. During the two-week long observance of OSU’s Sea Grant, there was a screening event of “Saving Atlantis,” a film created by researchers, some of whom are OSU affiliated, and filmmakers around the world to spotlight the increasing concern of declining corals and the humans that rely on that ecosystem. For those who would like a run-down of the coral crisis, here it is. Climate change and other human-induced damage poses multiple challenges for corals. Rising sea levels makes it more difficult for the symbiotic algae living in corals to photosynthesize. The deeper the coral is located in the ocean, the farther away from the surface the algae can collect sunlight to produce energy. Tourism and recreation attracts people, which is great for a country’s economy, but detrimental to the corals if not properly managed. Broken coral contributes to a loss of natural coastal protection from storms and inclement weather. Local artisanal fishermen harvest in the reefs for they know what species live in certain parts of the coral, but destruction and loss of corals equate to poor ecosystem health, and thus lower populations of fish ultimately affecting those that rely on fishing as a method of subsistence.

Since I’ve been honing in on narrative and rhetorical analysis, I’ve been even more open to considering different viewpoints of a given topic. This isn’t to say that saving corals is not a priority because it certainly is important. However, it’s important to remember that context and framing are key. The narrative of “Saving Atlantis” isn’t anything too outworldly, but in this day and age where visual media is a source of information, it’s essential to be critical of any persuasive media that you come across. For example, take a look at the cover image for the documentary below. What does the cover say? What message does it imply? What tone does it give off? Though I’ve seen the film, a first impression might read as people in coastal communities in developing countries (because they’re always the ones getting the brunt of environmental issues) looking outwards to find help in saving the corals that they rely on. The title can refer to people in developed countries needing to step in and play the role of the savior. Monochromatic blue hues feel somber.

It is said that you can’t judge a book by its cover, though its cover can be designed to attract you, especially if it only got its looks to get your attention. But can you see the substantial responsibility the framing of a narrative can have?

I’m curious to know if the saying, “Timing is everything” holds true. If the film wasn’t created or if it was shown at a different time other than for the Sea Grant festival, would it have the same impact? Was it simply a coincidence that the film was presented during the Sea Grant festival or was there meticulous planning involved? Unfortunately, the corals serve as the canary in the coal mine, and we may be at the brink of a point of difficult return. The message of saving corals and Atlantis has to be done somehow. I suppose the urgent recovery that needs to be done has to start one step at a time. We can’t make changes at hyperspeed, and so we can only make do with what we have which also happens to be a powerful choice—allowing ourselves to use media to assist with our own decisions rather than drive our beliefs.

Between Science and Art: An Academic Identity Crisis

Hearing the words “art” and “science” in the same sentence always gets me excited. But like many interdisciplinary people who question where their loyalties lie, I’m caught in between the realms of art and science. As a trained scientist who grew up with a side interest in the arts, I’ve always felt like I was the middle-person between the two fields and it is as if I feel that I have the duty to bring the two together. Though that ironically implies that I recognize the two to be separate when I want to be breaking the stigma that they are their own entities. Talk about a hypocritical identity crisis.

At the end of October, I was in Florence, Oregon for a very graduate-student-like event; a conference. State of the Coast is an annual conference held at coastal Oregon locations and discusses topics pertaining to the coast. From fisheries to technology, there is a topic for most everyone to attend. There’s also student posters and artwork to browse among as they decorate the Florence Events Center. I get excited to attend because not only do I prepare to network with people with similar passions as mine, but I also get to see what my friends are actually doing for their research despite sharing an office with them for a year (“Oh so that’s what you’re doing? No way!”). Lately, there has been an integration of art with the scientific feel of the gathering. This where said identity crisis comes in.

My poster for the 2016 State of the Coast conference in Gleneden Beach
My art piece for the 2017 State of the Coast conference in Florence

Last year I presented a poster as a M.S. candidate in the Marine Resource Management graduate program at the Salishan Lodge in Gleneden Beach. Since my transfer this past summer to be a M.A. candidate in the Environmental Arts and Humanities graduate program (yup, a whole 180 degree flip; learning lots but it’s pretty great), I was able to showcase a piece of mine that I completed as a part of a summer course I took. It felt a bit odd to be on the “other” side of things- going from a science field into a humanities field and showing my art in a place where I’ve shown my science, but it was neat to still be a part of an event that is blending the borders between art and science together which is essentially what I want to do for my graduate topic and hopefully career.

So where do I fit in? I sometimes feel the strain of being the middle-person trying to bridge two fields that have been separated over time. It’s already been a struggle to identify as an artist; am I a scientific artist or an artistic scientist? I settled with the latter because if you think about them as much as I do, there is the slightest difference. But then again, is there? I’ve been grappling with this internal conflict and I’m coming to terms that I belong right where I am; in a wondrous pandemonium of two fields that are fueled by creativity and curiosity. Between two realms that are remarkably resilient and formed by infinite imagination. In a place where I now have twice the amount of support, ideas, and friends.

Maybe I’m not so torn after all.