Mermaid Tears — Another Nautical Disaster


Charmaine Coimbra

Parts 1 and 2

Author’s Note:  This is a continuing series, that began with our ghost net report, looking at the different elements of debris found in our oceans.

Mermaid Tears, No Longer A Fanciful Legend

Part 1

crying mermaidHans Christen Andersen writes in The Little Mermaid, “But a mermaid has no tears.”  This line directly contradicts other fanciful writers and dreamers who  say that  mermaid tears become pearls, or  that the green pebbles found on  the Floridan Iona shoreline are the tears of a mermaid.  And maybe so.  Like the legend that mermaids are guardians and avengers of women, perhaps any remaining mermaid of legend cries unmercifully over the condition of the seas.

Today mermaid tears clog ocean waters–but they are neither pearls nor magical pebbles–they are  “…plastic pellets typically under five millimetres in diameter, and are a major component of marine debris,” as defined by Wikipedia.

Mermaid tears, also known as nurdles (before being lost at sea), is also a raw material used in plastic manufacturing, like plastic toys, bottles, and sports equipment.  The following video from Surfers Against Sewage documents their battle against Contico Europe, a large plastic manufacturer, with a history of strayed plastic and polystyrene pellets.

(For more about Surfers Against Sewage, visit

The other unnatural source of mermaid tears is the inability of plastic to biodegrade.  Large plastic debris will physically weather  (photodegrade) in the sea to eventually become the size of a fish egg. NOAA  sites,  ” A plastic cigarette lighter cast out to sea will fragment into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic without breaking into simpler compounds, which scientists estimate could take hundreds of years.”

While the obvious collection of plastic debris and other wastes caught in the great Pacific Garbage Patch, during a recent three day international conference, hosted by the University of Washington at Tacoma and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA),    scientists met to discuss this global issue of microplastics, or mermaid tears, for the first time.

Today's Mermaid Tears-Microplastics

Dr. Joel Baker, professor and Port of Tacoma Chair of environmental science at UW Tacoma said, “The world is seeing an exponential accumulation of plastic debris, from the very large to tiny fragmented pieces. In the past four decades, we’vecome to understand the ecological issues of large flotsam, but we lack substantive evidence on consequences of the smallest plastic particles for marine ecosystems.”

Part 2

Why Mermaid Tears are Poison to You and Me

From my window, the Pacific Ocean looks endless and impenetrable.  It is so big, that surely, one little accidental drop of trash, like a plastic bottle that blew out from my hands, could not hurt this water giant.

However, when that plastic bottle crumbles, the plastic polymers will not biodegrade.  Instead they will morph into mermaid tears—an environmental catastrophe so large that Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation     writes,  “ Most people find it highly distressing to learn that for every 6 pounds of plastic that we got, (in the North Pacific Gyre)       there was only one pound of zooplankton. In other words, there’s six times more plastic by weight in this area than there is naturally occurring plankton…The alarming thing we found was that practically every place we sampled had these plastic fragments in it. No place was free of this plastic fragment pollution.”

Why does this matter to you?

Imagine hungry plankton-eating fish, like cod, in a plankton-rich sea.  From Captain Moore’s window, this plankton isn’t real.  It’s lentil-sized floating plastic, mimicking plankton and fish eggs.  The hungry cod feasts on the debris.  Plastic. It’s what’s for dinner.

Compound the plastic consumption with the fact that these plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs, and other oily pollutants, as discovered by Japanese investigators. Their studies found “that plastic resin pellets concentrate such poisons to levels as high as a million times their concentrations in the water as free-floating substances,” writes Science Daily.   (NOTE:  SEE COMMENT BELOW ARTICLE)

Moore further notes, “Plastic is a transport medium for toxic pollutants. Some Japanese scientists (Mato, Isobe, Takada, Kahnehiro, Ohtake, and Kaminuma. Plastic Resin Pellets as a Transport Medium for Toxic Chemicals in the Marine EnvironmentEnviron. Sci. Technol.2001, 35, 318-324) just released a study indicating that plastic pellets — “nurdles”: pre-production plastics – the manufactured way that plastics are shipped to end-use manufacturers, are accumulators of hydrophobic pollutants – things like DDE and PCB. These can be up to one million times more concentrated on the surface of these pellets than they are in the ambient sea water, based on this latest research.”

Wise Geek authors concur. “Mermaid tears are a problem for a number of reasons. The first and most obvious is that they are ingested by marine animals, which cannot digest plastic. As a result, animals can sicken or die with large numbers of mermaid tears in their digestive tracts, and bigger organisms may consume mermaid tears when they eat smaller organisms. As a result, plastic becomes widely distributed in the marine food chain.”

What can you do to stop the mermaid’s from crying?

1)     Understand that lovely mermaids have nothing to do with this.  They are probably dead either from hunting, trapped in ghost nets, ingesting DDT with a side of plastic, or just victims of their own suicides.

2)     Rethink your use of plastics.  Find ways to reuse and recycle.

3)     On the road? Buy drinks in glass, not plastic.

4)     Stop using plastic grocery bags for everything.  Just say no thanks.

5)     Buy recycled plastic toys

6)     Buy recycled plastic benches, decking, whatever product you can find that fits your needs.

7)     Get help and plastic withdrawl ideas from these websites:


8)      Send me your ideas for posting.

NOTE FROM FRANK BONACCORSO:   One thing that I question about the study citing ratio of plastic to zooplankton is that many zooplankton migrate from depth (at day) to near surface (night).  Also plastic floats and should be only at the surface, but plankton is variable in depth — so I do question if the study you cite factored in the three-dimensional distribution of plankton for a true comparison — it may not be quite as bad as portrayed as a ratio by weight — however it is obviously still very bad for surface feeding birds, turtles, and some surface feeding whales like fin whales which lie on their sides to feed at the very surface waters (versus many other baleen whales that dive to various depths) — that is one way Mama Nature made whales diverge to feed in slightly different niches for plankton.

More on this from:

Categories: Condition of Oceans, North Pacific Gyre, Pesticides, Plastics and marine mammals, Trash Gyre

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3 replies


  1. The Great Garbage Patch — Time to Think Beyond Plastic « Neptune 911!
  2. More Floating Microplastics in Ocean than Expected | Neptune 911!
  3. From Visible Plastics to Nanoplastics in the Ocean – Neptune 911!

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