The cost of junk on the ocean floor

A discarded tire sits on a ledge 868 meters (2,850 feet) below the ocean surface in Monterey Canyon. 

Have you ever seen a lone shoe on the side of the road and wondered where the other one is?

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute combed the Pacific Ocean with underwater vehicles for the last 22 years, and recently a released a report that documents every single piece of trash they discovered resting on the ocean floor. And there's a lot of it: cans, tires, chairs, a coffee table and yes, that other shoe.

The Monterey Bay region is probably the most-studied section of the ocean floor on earth. The Research Institute there has used ROV’s, or Remote Operated Vehicles, to film about 200 undersea surveys a year.

“In this greater Monterey Bay region, we’ve only looked at less than one percent of the sea floor,” says Susan Von Thune at the Research Institute. In just those seven square miles, they discovered more than 1100 pieces of trash on the sea floor, including that other lonely shoe.

A young rockfish in a discarded shoe, 472 meters (1,548 feet) deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California. Courtesy of MBARI.

I asked Jesse Thorn, host of the menswear show Put This On, and Meghan Cleary, who calls herself America’s Shoe Expert, to take a look at a photo of the shoe on the ocean floor.

“Well it’s definitely a blucher, which is a kind of shoe with open-lacing” says Thorn. Which he added “would make it maybe like a Rockport or something like that.” Cleary agreed, “It looks like it might be something like a Rockport.”

They also agreed that a pair would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $120. But this shoe won't be for sale, a rockfish has already called this Rockport home.

“These animals are now living in an area that they wouldn’t normally live, so if we then removed the debris, it would then disrupt their habitat. So it’s a complicated issue,” says Von Thune.

Chances are no one is going to evict the poor rockfish from the Rockport, because that would cost a fortune. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute spends anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per day to operate its ships and ROV’s, and that's just to study the sea floor.  

Von Thune says the best thing to do is to prevent debris from getting into the ocean in the first place, because it takes so long for things to decompose in the deep sea that shoe and all that other sea junk could be there for centuries.

About the author

David Weinberg is a general assignment reporter at Marketplace.

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