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Sea of garbage

Captain Charles Moore grappling with buoys behind the Alguita research vessel. Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation


Tuesday, 22 January 2008

We left Hilo, Hawaii, Sunday night at dusk, just a few hours shy of nightfall. A full moon cast a bright, silver sheen over the gently rolling swells, making the first night watch a stunning spectacle.

Our first planned sampling spot lay just off Kamilo Beach, the most polluted beach in the US. A few days before our departure, we’d braved the two-hour treacherous drive to Kamilo to see for ourselves – a picturesque, volcanic coastline, far from any visible development, with clear blue waters and spectacular beaches – entirely covered in plastic debris.

It is spots like this that exemplify the need for a better understanding of how far-reaching the marine debris issue really is. And a powerful visual reminder of why we’re embarking on this month-long journey.

Two crew members attach a tracking buoy to a ‘ghost net’. Hundreds of plastic nets are abandoned in the ocean causing widespread damage to the marine environment. The buoys have transmitters that allow the nets to be tracked by satellite. The Alguita has tagged six ‘ghost nets’ since 2005.

Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Thursday, 24 January

Latitude: 21 39.297 North;
Longitude: 160 32.787 West

Heading North and beginning to notice plastic debris on the rise. At sunrise we headed to Kaula, a small, rocky island, seeking wind protection for our first sampling of the day. We reached the island by late morning – a stark, barren yet beautiful half-caldera lunarscape protruding sharply from the sea. Our first three trawls yielded scattered pieces of plastic, a few visible nurdles (raw plastic pellets) and a host of colourful organisms – numerous copepods, salps, Portuguese Man O’War and other miniscule creatures. We won’t know for certain how much plastic these samples contain until we bring them back to our lab.

Plastic bits mixed with beach sand (top); ‘plastic soup’ (bottom) dredged from the Pacific.

Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Monday, 28 January

Latitude: 30 08.447 North;
Longitude: 165 24.955 West

We’ve entered the central high-pressure cell of the gyre and begun sampling. The image left shows what we found in our first sample. This truly illustrates the term Captain Charles Moore uses to describe the gyre, ‘plastic soup’. It really is difficult to comprehend the vastness of this phenomenon. There is a common public misconception that the gyre is a ‘place’, a detectable spot, when rather it is an enormous, extremely diffuse region. 

Tuesday, 29 January

Latitude: 32 09.17 North;
Longitude: 165 28.47 West

We began trawling this morning. As we adjusted our course westward we spotted more debris, including a detergent bottle carpeted with algae and bryozoans and home to a disgruntled pelagic crab. Then a tangled mess of discarded rope floated by, home to an entire ecosystem of fish swirling beneath. One side-effect of marine debris is that it does indeed attract fish.

Equally interesting as what we found in our sample was what we didn’t find. Joel noted that most of the debris he saw when diving was about a metre down. When buoyant plastic particles are reduced in size, they begin to lose buoyancy and become incorporated into the water column. So it’s possible that by skimming the surface we are missing large amounts of small plastic fragments. Though we’re all fully prepared and expecting to find large quantities of plastic, it’s still shocking – it simply does not belong here.

Thursday, 31 January

Latitude: 32 46.18 North,
Longitude: 170 03.41 West

The afternoon lull was broken up by another sighting of a tangled rope mass. As we pulled the rope on board, dozens of fish and crabs came scuttling out. We scooped them up by hand and threw them in a mini aquarium, to observe and photograph before releasing them.

A concerned family member wanted to know if it’s safe for us to be eating fish out here in the midst of this plastic soup: an excellent question. The truth is we don’t really know for sure. There hasn’t been enough research on the impact of chemicals from plastic on living organisms. Do the pollutants attracted by plastic particles in turn migrate into the organisms consuming them?

Pollutants become increasingly more concentrated as they work their way up the food chain. So the bigger the fish, the more likelihood of it having eaten smaller, contaminated fish and absorbing the sum total of their toxins. 

Your safest bet: feast on minnows.

The North Pacific ‘gyre’ – a vast whirlpool stretching from California to Japan that keeps garbage, mostly plastic, circulating in its currents for decades. Sailing ships were often trapped for weeks here and tried to lighten the load by dumping extra cargo, including livestock. Thus the name: ‘horse latitudes’.

Illustration: Patricia J Wynne

Saturday, 2 February

Ahoy there. It’s Captain Moore giving our chief blogger Anna a break so I can chat with you about the size of the Eastern Garbage Patch and what type of debris it contains. Ocean Surface Current models show Texas-sized ‘garbage patches’ in the eastern and western North Pacific where much of the debris resides for decades. We have found that millions of square miles of ocean from 20N to 40N and from 135W to near the International Date Line are significantly impacted.

The Laysan albatross was the first large-scale sampler of the plastic plague in the North Pacific. Its diet of natural debris and squid was supplemented with plastic debris not long after the beginning of the throwaway era. We have dozens of photos of regurgitated stomach contents of the Laysan albatross that contain objects you might find at the checkout counter of your local convenience store – among the bottle caps, small bottles, cigarette lighters, pens and toothbrushes are plastic fragments of various sizes and colours.

Tuesday, 5 February

Latitude: 33 45.655 North;
Longitude: 160 21.999 West

We’ve entered a Langmuir windrow, a series of circular countercurrents that meet, sweeping mixed layer subsurface materials to the top, into a sort of oceanic river, visible as a slick on the ocean surface. In a perfect world this would consist mainly of nutrients. This one had a visible line of floating debris.

After anchoring and waiting for nightfall, we slipped into the cold waters and watched a rich scene of underwater life – waters thick with unusual creatures. Joel mentioned spotting a Mako shark. He actually kicked it away, as Anna, Herb and Marcus made a beeline for the boat.

Saturday, 9 February

Latitude: 36 23.448 North;
Longitude: 150 15.747 West

One of the most popular questions we receive is ‘how can we clean up this mess?’

People constantly ask if there isn’t some way to scoop, net or filter out this waste. It’s just… too…big. It’s like suggesting we sweep the US. Or sift the Sahara desert. And as people have seen from our sample images, much of this debris is comprised of small pieces – fragments – that require a fine mesh to remove. Which means removing tons of plankton as well – the basis of the entire marine food chain. If only the debris were nicely contained in a big ‘trash island’, perhaps we could remove it. But it’s spread out over an incomprehensibly huge area. The terms ‘garbage patch’ or ‘Texas-sized trash heap’ conjure up tangible areas when in fact this ‘plastic soup’ extends throughout the gyre. Add to this the unknowns: how much plastic is building up on the sea floor? Or is scattered through the water column? Add the expense and difficulty of getting here and the impossibility of cleaning up the gyre becomes clear. We need to focus our efforts on prevention; clean-up is simply not feasible.

Sunday, 10 February

Latitude: 35 41.046 North;
Longitude: 147 38.013 West

Kamilo Beach, Hawaii the most polluted beach in the US. A picturesque, volcanic coastline – entirely covered in plastic debris.

Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

We’re back in the area that first inspired Captain Moore’s mission back in 1997. For two solid hours we fished as fast as we could, pulling up floats, toothbrushes, plastic and glass bottles, a golf ball, a billiard ball, an unused glue stick and several tangled balls of rope filled with crabs and tiny striped fish. But most appalling was the plastic confetti: an endless stream of delicate, white snowflakes, like plastic powder coating the ocean’s surface.

We spotted our first ‘ghost net’ early in the evening, weighing more than a ton. What appeared from the surface a sizable, tangled nest of mismatched nets and imbedded debris was just the tip of the iceberg. A nautical nightmare in the making, with the potential to kill the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal, the only tropical seal, and many other creatures, including corals.

Tuesday, 13 February

Latitude: 35 31.691 North;
Longitude: 141 00.317 West

We just passed mile 3,000 of our journey. Today’s daytime sample yielded something we haven’t yet seen on the surface – numerous microfilaments and tiny line fragments. These fibres are the main type of debris found in our sub-surface trawls, up to 100 metres deep. The calm waters allowed these fragments to float to the surface, where they lodged in our nets. The small particle size may mean that this debris has been kicking around here for some time, swirling around in an endless spin cycle where it degrades into tiny, fouled fragments.

According to data collected from coastal clean-ups, 80 per cent of the marine debris that washes up on beaches originates from land-based sources – when street litter washes out to sea through storm drains. Out here, much of the identifiable debris we’re seeing comes from the fishing industry – fishing floats, ropes, net fragments, and other derelict fishing gear. The majority though is made up of plastic fragments.

Friday, 15 February

Latitude: 35 45.287 North;
Longitude: 138 34.245 West

We completed our last two samples today, wrapping up a reprise of our 1999 research. While it’s too early to draw any conclusions, we can safely say that the mass and number of plastic particles per area of sea surface has increased dramatically. The rapid accumulation of plastic marine debris parallels the increase in production and consumption of disposable plastics worldwide.

We’ve also spent a lot of time discussing how to communicate this issue to the public. One angle we’re planning to explore further is how ingestion of plastic may impact the marine food chain – and by extension, us.

Wednesday, 20 February

Latitude: 35 19.77 North;
Longitude: 125 50.314

Carcass of a Laysan albatross one of the first victims of the plastic plague in the North Pacific. Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, pens, toothbrushes mixed with plastic fragments.

Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation

The questions about solutions continue – we continue musing as we approach land, contemplating the work ahead. Changing behaviour is a monumental undertaking. And eliminating plastics from our lives would be impossible. The problems arise with our inefficient, excessive consumption and our highly flawed plastics recycling system. The concept of using durable, petroleum plastics – designed to last for thousands of years – to carry our groceries or seal a sandwich for an hour is ludicrous.

Friday, 22 February

Almost home!
Latitude: 35 55.923 North;
Longitude: 118 45.508

The final morning of our journey. The purpose of this trip was to continue gathering evidence, to answer some important questions about the health of our oceans and ultimately ourselves. We know that plastic trash is a problem. We know it doesn’t belong here, thousands of miles from land. We know it’s not good for marine creatures to be eating it and that it’s morally wrong for us to be fouling up their home.

But in order to get the world to pay attention and start making changes we need to PROVE it. We need accurate data and hard numbers so we can bring this information to governments, industries and the public – to show them just how serious this issue has become.

For more information on the work of the Algalita Foundation see www.algalita.org/contact-us.html

New Internationalist issue 415 magazine cover This article is from the September 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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