If your boat is 26’ or larger, then you should have a placard displayed aboard, setting standards of what and where we are permitted to dump into the sea.  (If you don’t have one, call me.) This placard is required by the USCG (US Coast Guard, as stated in CFR 33  151).    But, effective January 1, 2013, the rules are expected to change.

The initial standards of discharging unwanted items into the sea were set by an international group called IMO (International Maritime Org.)  In 1973 the group formed to set standards to prevent ships from polluting the seas.   The group met again in 1978 and published a document called MARPOL 73/78, which is followed by the USCG and affects us, right here on our own lakes and rivers.

The current MARPOL 73/78 allows for some discharge of garbage and sewage, depending on the vessel’s distance from nearest body of land.  Nobody is ever allowed to dump plastics, or synthetic nets, ropes etc.  into the sea, according to the standards.  (CFR 33 151.67)  But, the seas continue to become more and more polluted, as has been proven by findings of studies which measure the amount of garbage and debris which washes ashore.



First, we’ll start with a little physics lesson:

From a global perspective, the oceans of the world have a natural current flow.  Oceanographers refer to these currents as “gyres”  (pronounced jeers) and have determined they are caused from a phenomenon known as the “coreolis” effect

Coreolis effect is a deflection of moving objects when viewed from a rotating reference frame.  Perhaps the most commonly encountered rotating reference frame is the rotation of the earth, and the water in the oceans.  The rotating force causes moving objects (ocean water) to veer to the right, with respect to the direction of travel in the Northern Hemisphere, and to the left in the Southern Hemisphere.  This effect sets up a rotating current, or vortex, in large bodies of water.  The current travels, forming a circular flow; clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.  One of the more familiar examples of this current flow is the “Gulf Stream” which flows from Florida, toward Maine, along USA’s east coast.




There are many of these gyres in the large bodies of water of the world.  There are five however, which are much more dominant, located in:  1) North Atlantic, 2) South Atlantic,  3) North Pacific, 4) South Pacific, and 5) Indian Ocean.  The circular flow tends to cause a swirl at the center, similar to the water in a toilet when it is flushed, but much slower and more subtle.  The centers of these gyres tend to collect debris, which becomes trapped in the circular flow and cannot escape.

A patch of this debris located in the North Atlantic Ocean, was discovered in 1972.  It is over 990 miles in length (22 degrees N-Lat – 38 degrees N-Lat) and unknown in width.  The patch tends to seasonally drift about, and is roughly located between Cuba and Virginia, hundreds of miles off the East Coast  of USA.  An estimation of pollution has been made at :  200,000 pieces of debris per square kilometer.

In 1988, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) predicted there would also be a garbage patch in the Northern Pacific Ocean, but had never located it.  Then in 1997, a sailor named Charles Moore came upon an enormous field of floating debris, centrally located in the Pacific of the Northern Hemisphere.   The patch has become known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.   It is the size of Texas, and contains roughly 3.5 million tons of rubbish, consisting of old fishing nets, plastic bottles and plastic items of all descriptions, including plastic ice cream tubs and polystyrene.

In years past, it was generally believed that the oceans would simply absorb anything that was thrown into them.  But now, we are discovering where all that stuff went !   Plastics can circulate in these patches for years and years; some have estimated nearly 450 years, before they completely deteriorate.  But, it’s not all on the surface.

Researchers in Japan have studied ocean samples and discovered derivatives of “polystyrene” a common plastic which is used in disposable cutlery, Styrofoam and DVDs, among other things.  These toxic compounds are not naturally found in the oceans and are believed to have been inserted by partial deterioration of plastic items.  The deteriorating plastic pollution tends to suspend in the water, forming a” toxic soup” which can extend to as much as 60’deep in the water column.  Suspended particulates in the “soup” get consumed by creatures living in the sea.





A major (and selfish) reason for concern is preservation of our food chain.  Small creatures eating toxic waste become consumed by larger creatures, who in turn get eaten by larger  creatures……. Etc……Etc.     At the top of the chain is a human.  And, by this time, the food source contains a high concentration of toxicity.    Okay, now, I’m getting interested in all this stuff !


NOBODY has the resources to clean it up.  So, there it sits.  All that “stuff” just swirling around out there.   And there’s more:

Remember the Tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011 ?   There’s a LARGE field of debris, spread over thousands of miles of ocean, from the back wash of the tidal wave.  The debris consists of a wide variety of items ranging from boats to footballs, and is currently located somewhere north of Hawaii near the Midway Atoll.  The debris being carried by the North Atlantic gyre, and is expected to begin washing ashore on the West Coast of USA in late 2012, and continue through 2013.  The good news is that experts predict ocean currents will prevent 95% of the debris from actually landing ashore.  Rather, they predict, ocean currents will cause it to simply pass by, eventually joining up with the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.


Thus we have come full circle.  MARPOL has written an amendment to Annex V (the one that deals with garbage pollution) which is expected to go into effect January 1st, 2013.  Which basically says:    Don’t throw anything overboard.   Take it back to port, for disposal.

Happy Boating !


Ron Smith

Principal Surveyor For:

Tri-State Marine Services, Inc.

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