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Shoreline litter can harm ecosystems in a number of ways. Discarded fishing gear, transported by wind and waves, can snag on and cause significant damage to fragile coastal habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds. Other effects include interfering with important biological processes, introducing non-native species, reducing water quality, and negatively impacting delicate food webs.
Even an item as simple as a crumpled food wrapper or plastic bag can damage aquatic ecosystems and interfere with biological reproduction. When fishing nets, bags, tires and other pieces of litter sink to the ocean floor, they can break and smother coral reefs. Smothering blocks the sunlight required for plants and small organisms to carry out photosynthesis. This is an important process that provides the energy for them to grow and release oxygen into the air, playing a vital role in the Earth’s life cycle.
Once adrift, floating aquatic debris can travel far and wide. Along the way, different organisms can attach themselves to the debris and travel to new habitats where they would not normally be found. More commonly known as invasive species, these plants or animals can then damage the sensitive balance of new ecosystems by harming or competing with native species.
Many shoreline litter items contain dangerous chemicals that can degrade water quality. Paint cans, oil cans and batteries are a few examples of items that can easily leak toxic chemicals. Plastics, which most litter items contain, can also release toxins once they break down, and eventually impact the sources of water that we use every day.
Every living organism, including humans, is part of a food web. These systems of interconnected food chains can be harmed by shoreline litter in many different ways. Organisms may either ingest a litter item directly, or be impacted by the toxins that are released into the environment. These negative effects can then travel up and influence the entire food web.