DailyTech has previously reported about the rising epidemic of tech trash. The export of tech trash, largely from the U.S. to third world nations, has become an international problem which has gotten so bad the U.S. Congress is considering tough new measures to curb the effects. However, while some tech trash may be getting dumped on foreign soils, there's another major realm of tech trash that is only now beginning to be fully recognized -- the sea.
Every year boats, barges and ships sink in coastal waters around the U.S. due to accidents, weather damage, age or an owner's financial duress. The majority is never recovered and lay rotting on the seabed. The problem has taken on high-tech ramifications, as modern boats often have onboard computers and circuitry, much of which contains toxic chemicals.
Doug Helton, acting director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program describes, "You go to any harbor or shoreline in the country and you'll find derelict and abandoned vessels."
There may be as many as 10,000 sunken vessels surrounding the U.S. coast, with 400 to 500 being sunk in 2005 alone, with the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. The wrecks typically leach toxic petroleum into the surrounding areas says Mr. Helton. And while the petroleum chemicals will drift away, the PCBs onboard the ships will not and continue to leach toxic chemicals. Mr. Helton says that these chemicals move up the food chain and are likely to eventually be ingested by humans.
The wrecks can also destroy local ecosystems. The leaching iron can attract corallimorph, organisms in the same family as corals and sea anemones, which attack and kill corals and other sea life. This phenomenon was recently verified by Thierry Work, a wildlife disease specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and his colleagues, in the journal PLoS One. He describes, "It's a carpet of living animals that destroyed all the other organisms underneath. We were able to show man-made structures were responsible for the growth of these organisms."
The wreckage can also directly kill fish and other sea creatures. According to Keith Criddle, a marine policy professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks the leading killer of endangered monk seals is fishing equipment aboard wrecks. A 2004 report titled "An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century," the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy found that more than 267 different species were being adversely impacted by derelict fishing gear.
Professor Criddle and others have called on Congress to improve efforts to remove the marine trash, particular the fish equipment and toxic tech trash. They say the biggest need is for a cohesive plan as their currently is a lack of organization in efforts. While many states have fines for abandonment, often they are not strictly enforced and it’s less costly to take the fine that take apart the ship. Breaking down a 40 foot yacht can cost as little as $5,000 to $10,000, but often it can cost up to 100 times that amount.
Recently, Washington State has funded some efforts for boat removal and the U.S. Congress has given the NOAA some funding to remove boats from coral reefs. While these efforts are helping, they cannot keep up with the pace of sinking ships, without more help.
One additional undesirable side effect of the PCB leaching has also surfaced -- "increased catchability". While this may sound like a good thing, it’s a headache for fishers, as it causes regions to quickly be depleted of fish and lowers their overall revenue.
Mr. Helton says that with new government efforts technology aboard the ships and any fishing gear could be secured so the ship was not harming the environment, even if there were not funds to totally dismantle the ship. He urges citizens as well to remember, "when a vessel is lost it's not gone."