Garbage in the sea is an internationally recognized problem, and on a smaller scale, garbage on beach is one of the more common complaints from tourists visiting tropical beach areas. The first article I read about Lembeh started of with a comment on just the garbage in the strait (the author thought that he had found a new species of octopus, but found out that the subject was a used condom!). This picture of Lembeh is often repeated but currently far from correct, as the city of Bitung has made great efforts to diminish the amount of garbage ending up in the sea, with significant success.
There might be another side to the problem though. Lembeh´s rise to its status as the critter capital of the world came during the time with by far the most garbage in the strait. Could there be something about garbage that is good for the critters? There is no doubt that the plastic bags moving around in the currents are really bad, as are many other soft or dissolvable type of garbage, killing of many of the sedentary animals.
Also, which I will return to in a later blog, any kind of sewage or agricultural run off will be the kiss of death to most of the environments we dive in. However, hard garbage, such as bottles, cans, ropes, shoes and such are highly likely to have many positive effects, and their presence might not be so bad after all.
The typical critters we want to see in Lembeh are denizens of sand flats. Sand flats are notoriously dangerous habitats to inhabit, without any type of protection. Many of the animals on the sand flats use certain types of garbage as shelter and protection against predators.
Coconut octopus, many fish, shrimp and other animals hide in bottles and cans or between rope ends left in the water. Many sedentary animals, that have no way of surviving on clean sand flats, encrust hard garbage and can start large colonies once they find a substrate allowing them to settle. Anemone fish such as saddlebacks often use bottles as substrate for their eggs, as do many mollusks.
This shouldn´t be very surprising to the diving community. After all, wrecks, which so many divers love to dive, very clearly creates substrate and hiding places for so many marine animals, are just very huge lumps of garbage. Maybe it is time to think a little bit more kindly of the small version of wrecks such as bottles and cans, that essentially fill the same role as substrate and hiding place on the barren sand flats.