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The ocean is broken

The ocean is broken thumbnail

Nothing could have prepared Ivan Macfadyen for the devastation all around him as he sailed the Pacific.

It was the silence that made this voyage different from all of those before it.

Not the absence of sound, exactly. The wind still whipped the sails and whistled in the rigging. The waves sloshed against the fibreglass hull. And there were plenty of other noises: muffled thuds and bumps and scrapes as the boat knocked against pieces of debris.

What was missing were the cries of seabirds that surrounded the boat on previous voyages across the same seas. The birds were missing because the fish were missing.

'It felts as if the ocean itself was dead,' says Ivan Macfadyen.‘It felts as if the ocean itself was dead,’ says Ivan Macfadyen. Photo: Lindsey Hoshaw

Ten years earlier, when Newcastle yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen sailed from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do was throw out a baited line to catch a fish.


”There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice,” Macfadyen recalls.

But this time, only two fish were caught on the long sea voyage.There were no fish, no birds, in fact there was hardly a sign of life.

-Pain: Newcastle’s Ivan Macfadyen on board his yacht. Photo: Max Mason Hubers

”In years gone by I’d gotten used to all the birds and their noises,” Macfadyen says. ”They’d be following the boat, sometimes resting on the mast before taking off again. You’d see flocks of them wheeling over the surface of the sea in the distance, feeding on pilchards.”

But in March and April this year, only silence and desolation surrounded his boat, Funnel Web, as it plied across a haunted ocean.

North of the equator, above Papua New Guinea, the ocean-racers saw a big fishing boat working a reef in the distance.

”All day it was there, trawling back and forth. It was a big ship. Like a mother ship,” he says. And all night it worked too, under bright floodlights. In the morning, Macfadyen was woken by his crewman calling out, urgently, that the ship had launched a speedboat.

”Obviously I was worried. We were unarmed and pirates are a real worry in those waters. I thought, if these guys had weapons, then we were in deep trouble.”

But they weren’t pirates, in the conventional sense, at least.

The speedboat came alongside and the Melanesian men aboard offered gifts of fruit and jars of jam and preserves.

”And they gave us five big sugar-bags full of fish,” Macfadyen says. ”They were good, big fish, of all kinds. Some were fresh but others had obviously been in the sun for a while. We told them there was no way we could possibly use all those fish. There were just two of us, with no real place to store or keep them. They just shrugged and told us to tip them overboard … They told us that this was just a small fraction of a day’s by-catch. That they were only interested in tuna and everything else was rubbish. It was all killed, all dumped. They just trawled that reef day and night and stripped it of every living thing.”

It was one fishing boat among countless others working unseen beyond the horizon, many doing exactly the same thing. Little wonder the the sea was dead.The next leg of the Australian’s voyage was from Osaka to San Francisco and, for much of the trip, desolation was tinged with fear.

”After we left Japan it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen says. ”We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles, there was nothing alive to be seen.”

But garbage was everywhere.

”Part of it was the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Japan a couple of years ago. The wave came in over the land, picked up an unbelievable load of stuff and carried it out to sea. And it’s still out there, everywhere you look,” Macfadyen says.

His brother Glenn, who boarded at Hawaii for the run into the US, marvelled at the ”thousands on thousands” of yellow plastic buoys. The huge tangles of synthetic rope, fishing lines and nets. Pieces of polystyrene foam by the million. And slicks of oil and petrol, everywhere. Countless hundreds of wooden power poles are out there, snapped off by the killer wave and still trailing wires in the middle of the sea.

On other voyages, when their boat was becalmed, the Macfadyens would just crank the motor and chug off. Not this time.

”In a lot of places we couldn’t start our motor for fear of entangling the propeller in the mass of pieces of rope and cable. That’s an unheard of situation out in the ocean,” Ivan Macfadyen recalls. ”If we did motor we couldn’t do it at night, only in the daytime with a lookout on the bow, watching for rubbish. In the waters above Hawaii, you could see right down into the depths. I could see that the debris isn’t just on the surface, it’s all the way down. And it’s all sizes, from a soft-drink bottle to pieces the size of a big car or truck. We saw a factory chimney sticking out of the water. ”We were weaving around these pieces of debris. It was like sailing through a garbage tip.”

There was little escape. Below decks, the hull amplified the sound of flotsam and junk scraping the length of the boat. The pair lived in constant fear of hitting something really big and going down. Plastic was everywhere, bottles, bags, chairs, toys. Something in the water off Japan reacted with the yacht’s distinctive shiny yellow paint and turned it dull.

Ivan Macfadyen is still coming to terms with the horror of the voyage. ”The ocean is broken,” he says.

However, much of the world has little idea of the vastness of the problem and Macfadyen is looking at ways of alerting governments and organisations to the disaster that floats offshore.

He intends approaching the organisers of Australia’s major ocean races, trying to enlist yachties into an international scheme that uses volunteer yachtsmen to monitor debris and marine life. Macfadyen signed up to a similar scheme while in the US, responding to an approach by US academics who asked yachties to fill in daily survey forms and collect samples for radiation testing – a significant concern after the tsunami and nuclear power station failure in Japan.

”I asked them why don’t we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess,” Macfadyen says. ”They said they’d calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there.”


11 Comments on "The ocean is broken"

  1. J-Gav on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 2:23 pm 

    Most people will of course never see these country-sized garbage zones in our oceans. But once our refuse has choked a good chunk of the life out of them, there will be a monstrous impact on a broad swath of the human population.

  2. Kenz300 on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 2:40 pm 

    Reduce, reuse and recycle…….

    Garbage needs to have a value in order to provide an incentive for people to recycle it……

    Biofuels can now be made from waste or trash. Every landfill can be converted to produce biofuels, energy and recycled raw materials for new products.

    This could provide an incentive for people to bring their waste to a recycling center rather than throw it on the ground to be washed away. Waste needs to have a value so people will cash it in rather than discard it.

  3. rollin on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 3:15 pm 

    Overfishing, nitrate pollution, soil eroding into the ocean due to land development, toxic chemicals, deadly plastic, acidification, warming,radioactivity; a plethora of kill mechanisms that steadily destroy ocean life. Of course the ocean is broken. Fresh water rivers and lakes are broken, forests are broken, grasslands are broken.
    The ecology is broken and the environment twisted.
    Typical solution scenario is find the problem and eliminate it. Unless of course the problem is in the process of eliminating itself, then why waste the time and energy?

  4. DMyers on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 4:02 pm 

    J-Gav says: “Most people will of course never see these country-sized garbage zones in our oceans.” I agree with that and also with the “broad swath” conclusion.

    I’ll translate this into a more common scale. I used to go to a camp on a small lake in northern Indiana. The first time I went there (early sixties), the grounds around the lake were teeming with life. Walking through the tall grass, there would be small explosions of frogs, toads, grasshoppers and other small critters scrambling away with every step. Eight years later, there was only a small remnant of that abundance left.

    In that example, I can’t say why those natural populations were driven down that way. No doubt, it was the camp itself, but over that time, the population in the region had grown, there were more cars being driven, and the industrial economy had grown exponentially.

    The decline I witnessed had to be happening in many other places, as there was nothing in particular here to explain it, other than the occupation of humans. Humans alter the habitat, to the detriment of other species. This has happened cumulatively, until it now expresses itself on a large scale, and it involves species that really matter to our survival.

    The description of fishing in the article, a sort of scouring of life from the ocean, represents a separate noteworthy phenomenon, which I can only describe as a madness of humanity’s belief in its own exceptionalism. An apropos historical analogue to this is the slaughter of buffalo in the western USA, much of which was just for fun.

  5. J-Gav on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 4:10 pm 

    DMyers – It is kind of scary to think that the day may come, whether on land (dead soils) or at sea (huge dead zones), when it won’t matter much where you are in the food chain … because there won’t be any food chain left!

  6. Hugh Culliton on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 7:38 pm 

    Of all the myriad problems we face today, I find the damage inflicted on the oceans to be the most depressing.

  7. DC on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 7:53 pm 

    The worst thing of all, is no one is ‘responsible’. The oil and chemical industries of course, are blameless for how ‘people use plastics. Those drag-net fishermen in those factory ships.They are doing anything ‘wrong’ either. They even lack the capacity to even consider what they are doing. To them, scouring the ocean floor with multi-km long drag-nets is just a traditional way to ‘fish’.And the big one, endless breeding of new humans to ‘consume’ all that plastic and drag-net fish, is of course, gawds will, whatever gawd that happens to be.

    The ocean cannot be fixed or cleaned as things stand. Just like fukushima cant be ‘fixed’. No plastic bans are no the horizon. Nothing is slowing down our breeding like a virus, no matter how much they pretend otherwise. And the only thing that will permanently port those factory vacuum ships is lack of fish and lack of fuel. Which of course, is coming. But too late, the availability of cheap fuel made the destruction they do affordable. Once its no longer possible to vacuum oceans free of all life-they will simply sit in a port, rusting away. Doing even more damage to coastal areas for a centuries to come as they rot away.

    Nice isnt it?

  8. action on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 7:58 pm 

    Everyone stop buying fish, I don’t anymore. Must cripple the demand, even though that is impossible, too many people are ignorant or don’t care; it’ll keep going on like this until it can’t, might as well say goodbye right now.

  9. FireJack on Sun, 27th Oct 2013 10:05 pm 

    Nothing will change until the whole “keep consuming more and support the economy” mantra grinds to a halt due to lack of resources to support it. Things will change pretty fast after that.

  10. Dave Thompson on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 1:34 am 

    We are witnessing the planet earth’s sixth great extinction. Humans are the cause.

  11. GregT on Mon, 28th Oct 2013 5:14 am 

    20 years ago, I could buy 4 whole sockeye salmon for 20 dollars. They now sell for 20 dollars a pound.

    20 years from now, the people that are left, are going to be very hungry. Money isn’t going to help.

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