In the Pacific Ocean, there is a garbage patch spanning 617,763 square miles. To put that into perspective, that’s three times larger than France, or relatively two times the size of Texas. Daily, the water temperature is rising, glaciers are melting, more and more pollutants are added to the cesspool of waste, and marine animal are species becoming extinct, falling victim to our harsh industrialization. To anyone, especially the upcoming generations of youth who get to look forward to the rapid deterioration of the most abundant and necessary natural resource, that is alarming. Out of fear, it would be easier to ignore the problem, negate all responsibility, and pretend it doesn’t exist. But there is a solution. There is hope. We just have to start doing something about it.
ESB 5661 proves a great step in the right direction. Washington state passed a law that demands every fisherman to report lost nets to the WDFW within 24 hours. Being that an average of 25-30 nets are lots annually, killing an estimated 800,000 animals, this is progress. Doc Thoemke, the man who wakes up at 3 a.m. three times a week, cleans up those nets, along with an assortment of miscellaneous garbage that winds up on the shoreline.
Doc described one incident where he found wildlife entangled in the grips of our own pollution; “I saved one seabird that was hanging upside down by his foot. You wouldn’t believe it when I tell you that he followed me around my boat for twelve hours the next day.” He then detailed another incident of a dolphin trapped in a similar situation:
“We were moving along slow, and this float goes under the surface, comes back up, goes back down, and comes back up, but you can’t see anything pulling on it. The dolphin was entangled in the rope and was trying to get air. So over here about 400 feet away is this dolphin trying to get air and the weight of the rope and the crab pot is pulling it to the bottom again. So when I got to it, I was untangling all these lines. If I tell you this, no one will believe me. The only person who will believe me is Grouchy Mike, because he was the guy that was with me. She’s tangled, I untangle her. She comes right back to the side of the boat, and like Flipper on TV, she moves her mouth up and down, not making any noise. We come back the next day, I have the cameras set up and everything. We start fishing. I get the biggest bite of my life. Next thing we see is the 15 foot fish up at the side of the boat, it spit the lure at me. It stayed by our boat for 3 hours, up and down the boat, just talking to us.”
These marine animals need our help. I joined Doc on one of his weekly boat rides, only days after his last trip down the same path, and down what’s considered one of the cleaner shorelines of the state, that was littered with garbage. Balloons, toilet paper, condoms, tires, “For Sale” signs, all scattered around rocks on the shore, unbeautifying all the seashells and petrified wood. We even witnessed one of those ghost nets wrapped around a branch near the coastline.
That, however, is tame compared to what Doc has witnessed in his 27 years of cleaning up the mess we’ve made in the ocean. He’s seen thousands of endangered birds, fish and crabs wrapped up in these ghost nets, fish infected and dying from the trash they consume, and even dead seals and dolphins rotting and washed ashore.
He continues his plight, however, battling not only the assortment of non-biodegradable clutter, but even battling with federal and state regulations that try to limit his impact. One occasion they almost arrested him for pulling a net out of the ocean.
“What motivated me was the realism of it. What motivated me was seeing that nobody did anything about it. What motivated me was the fact that the government was getting paid for it and using it for salaries,” Doc said.
Retired at 43, Doc has dedicated much of his life to the cleansing of the Puget Sound. He’s seen a whirlwind of political scandals involved in it, including the 187 thousand pounds of sewage sprayed into trees at Web Mountain by a company stationed in Australia (which is still happening today), but he has also seen a lot of progress. He’s gained notoriety from sponsors and volunteers, won an Emmy from NBC on waste removal, and hopes to grow and spread awareness to the very tangible issues crippling out water.
“Some people take offense when you say that the environment is falling apart, and they don’t believe you. They take offense when the crabs are dying. They take offense when you say that the PH level is so high that there’s no oxygen in the water, because the people in the Pacific Northwest have grown up to know that the Puget Sound represents clean, represents a good life,” Doc said.
Unfortunately, however, that just isn’t 100% the case. Scientists estimate that between 150 - 200 animals become extinct daily, many of those being aquatic life. Aside from the extinction of the dinosaurs, this marks the fastest depletion of animal species in history. However, as the upcoming generation in innovation, we need to turn the table on those statistics. By pairing with people like Doc who spend their lives pouring themselves into making a difference, we can ensure the promise of a cleaner tomorrow. Doc is currently in the works of establishing a social media presence, aimed to educate and keep those involved up to date, posting a monthly schedule with events such as trash pickup. In the meantime, firstname.lastname@example.org is the best way to contact him and get engaged in environmentally active participation, and Doc is welcoming all students to join him on his morning boatside cleanups.
“The most rewarding part to me is to see the enthusiasm of people who are involved in the volunteer[ing] of cleaning it up. Their enthusiasm and excitement, and the feeling of, “Wow, we really did something today”, says a lot for itself. Good people make good things happen.” Doc concludes.