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File photo of a boy picking up trash on a beach.

Saturday, for fans of the ocean, is California Coastal Cleanup Day, and if you are participating, it’s wise to focus on the job at hand. Pick up stray pieces of Styrofoam, disposable plastic cups and the great pollution problem that is drinking straws.

But don’t let your mind wander off to the larger problems like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, or worldwide waste management in general. You may spiral into an ocean of despair at the Sisyphean fruitlessness of your endeavor.

Jerry Schubel has been the president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific for 16 years, and you’ll have a hard time finding anyone who’s more of an expert on the world’s oceans. Schubel isn’t an amusement park operator. He holds a Ph.D. in oceanography from Johns Hopkins University, and you can read the other seven paragraphs of his accomplishments here.

He’s not mad at anyone for participating in the clean-up. He encourages it. “You have to have these local cleanups because they make the environment better,” he says. “No one wants to go to a beach with trash all over the place.” And, he says several aquarium employees and volunteers will be taking part in the annual event.

In Long Beach, there are five sites where your help will be welcome from 9 a.m. until noon on Saturday.

  • Alamitos Bay Marina  (255 N. Marina Drive.)
  • Belmont Pier (End of Termino Avenue at Ocean Boulevard)
  • Sea Scout Base (near Mothers Beach,  5875 Appian Way)
  • Cherry Beach (End of Junipero Avenue at Ocean Boulevard)
  • Peninsula (End of 72nd Place at Ocean Boulevard)
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File photo.

Local cleanups aside, though, “You have to look at the ocean as a whole,” says Schubel. “And you have to stop pollution at its chief sources.”

Here, he’s looking at the major rivers of Asia that dump waste into the sea—a mega version of what the Los Angeles River spews into the sea at Long Beach—the Yellow and Yangtze rivers of China, the Ob River of Russia, the Ganges in India and the Mekong River in Vietnam.

“Those rivers dump more than 80 percent of floatable material into the Pacific,” he says. “And it’s mostly plastic; probably 90 percent by weight.”

Much of it stems from poverty. More than 100 million people in India and China live in extreme poverty. And much of it comes from sheer population. The United States is the third most populous country in the world, but it’s a distant third with its little crowd of 325.7 million trailing China (1.379 billion) and India (1.324 billion) by about a billion each.

Jerry Schubel, CEO and president of the Aquarium of the Pacific. Courtesy photo.

“There is some testing going on soon to see if this idea from a fellow in the Netherlands, who has built a boom system that he says can reduce the plastic in the Garbage Patch by 50 percent in the next five years, but there’s 8 million tons of plastic going into the ocean every year, and if the thing works in the Garbage Patch—and it’s uncertain that it will—wouldn’t it be better to cut it off at its sources and to move them to the mouths of these rivers to prevent plastic from doing damage to marine life?”

Say “yes.” It’s a rhetorical question.

Another thing that would help the environment, says Schubel, is if people just generally behaved themselves when it comes to waste disposal (“but,” he acknowledges, “people don’t behave themselves”), or at least give people a fighting chance to do the right thing by littering the landscape with trash receptacles, especially in poorer areas.

And now, lest cheer accidentally sneak into the conversation, we’re off to climate change and the warming of the seas.

“They’re getting warmer,” says Schubel. “At Scripps Institution of Oceanography, they measure the surface temperature of the water at their pier. They’ve been doing it for 102 years, and this year it was almost 80 degrees, the highest it’s ever been.”

So we have more frequent and more violent hurricanes, we have rising sea levels, and we have people who don’t think humans have anything to do with it.

People, in fact, have everything to do with it. Schubel says, “That’s the entire reason that with our new wing, Pacific Visions, instead of adding more animals from the sea, it’s devoted to the one animal that’s putting all others at risk.” The new wing is scheduled to open in the spring of 2019.

The Aquarium of the Pacific's massive expansion begins to take shape. Photo by Brian Addison.
The Aquarium of the Pacific’s massive expansion begins to take shape. Photo by Brian Addison.

I ask about Trump, and I ask about his Environmental Protection Agency. A mere bagatelle, says Schubel. “If the trends of the administration continue, it will become a growing problem, but with 80 percent of the plastics pollution coming from Asia, it’s a mere blip.”

What can our current president do to slow the damage that’s being done to the planet, if only in terms of getting other countries worldwide to get on the same page in terms of, well, all of the above? It is, admittedly, a stupid question.

“In order to influence Asia, you have to be a good team player in the international arena,” says Schubel. “Do you think Donald Trump is a good team player in the international arena?”

I gave him my answer.

“Neither do I,” he replied.

Tim Grobaty is a columnist and the Opinions Editor for the Long Beach Post. You can reach him at 562-714-2116, email [email protected], @grobaty on Twitter and Grobaty on Facebook.