I’ve written about the garbage patch swirling around the North Pacific a dozen times. It’s big (the size of Texas?) and growing; now it’s clear that it is not alone, that there are other gyres, in other parts of the ocean. Anna Cummins is leading a project called 5 Gyres and an interview with her at SmartPlanet.com details where they are and how they’re growing.
What are the 5 gyres and why do we need to know about them?
An oceanic gyre is a slow rotating system of currents — massive marine eddies created by wind patterns and the Earth’s rotational forces. Oceanic gyres have come to the public attention due to their ability to transport and accumulate marine debris. In the last decade, Captain [Charles] Moore and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation have documented an alarming amount of plastic debris in the North Pacific Gyre, between California and Hawaii. Plastic trash that washes from land in the Pacific Rim countries gets swept up in the gyre’s currents, breaking down into smaller pieces through photodegradation. Plastic debris can harm marine wildlife through entanglement or ingestion. Current research focuses on the potential human health impacts of this plastic trash, as plastic particles laden with toxic chemicals are eaten by fish, and enter the food chain.
Many have now heard of plastic trash in the North Pacific, due to more media about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
Few realize that there are five subtropical gyres in the world — the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean . Little is known about plastic pollution in the four other gyres. To address this, our project is conducting research on these lesser known gyres, bringing the issue of plastic pollution to a global audience.
What research does your team do?
We research the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans. This year, we completed two research expeditions across the North Atlantic and Indian Ocean gyres, collecting samples of the ocean’s surface. Our research partner analyzes our samples in a lab, measuring the weight and the type of plastic collected, as well as dissecting small fish to study potential plastic ingestion. We have eight expeditions planned for 2010 and 2011, to the South Atlantic and South Pacific gyres. We will collect surface samples to study plastic accumulation, and fish to study potential biochemical impacts. The question being asked by the public now: are fish that eat plastic particles also absorbing chemicals from this plastic into their tissue? If so, are these chemicals working their way up the food chain? We hope to explore this question further.
Who works on the project?
Our team is made up of scientists, journalists, educators and filmmakers. We offer space to interested crew representing many different public sectors. It is important to have both scientists and non-scientists involved to ensure that our message gets out to a wide audience.
Why is this work important?
We have now crossed three oceans — the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Indian Ocean — and we’ve seen plastic pollution in all three. Plastics have been around for less than 100 years, yet we now find them covering shorelines and ocean surfaces around the world. Far from being simply an aesthetic issue, this plastic pollution poses threats to marine wildlife that ingest or become entangled in plastic. And we’re now finding plastic in fish that humans eat. We must begin addressing this issue on land, by changing the way we use and dispose of plastics.
What’s the goal of the project?
Our goal is to reach a much wider audience with our research, bringing the issue of plastic pollution to international attention and continuing to explore the unknown questions about plastic debris: what is the ultimate fate of plastic debris? What is the density of plastic pollution in the other gyres? And are pollutants from plastic entering the food chain through foraging fish? With our research, we also hope to encourage changes in the way we produce, manufacture, consume and recycle our plastics. Once we collect our data, we will conduct a cycling and speaking tour across the East Coast and Europe.
What challenges do you face?
Research expeditions are expensive, and finding funding for research can be difficult. Another challenge is coming up with realistic, immediate solutions to the plastic pollution issue. Changing policies that govern the way we make and use plastics will take time and public involvement. We also need to work on improving waste infrastructures of many less developed countries. Many countries are not yet equipped to deal with plastics effectively — so plastic trash is often burned or tossed. Finally, a big picture challenge in developed countries is shifting from our throwaway, consumer culture. In addition to changing the material, and recyclability of plastic, we need to consume less “stuff” altogether.
No ocean story has gotten more attention in the past couple years than the big (size of Texas!) garbage patch swirling around the North Pacific. Discovered just over ten years ago by my friend Captain Charles Moore, as he innocently steered his way back home from Hawaii after a sailing race, the patch’s press has prompted all sorts of inquiries about where it came from and how it might be cleaned up. The most interesting queries I get – often from people in the outdoor industry who already use plastic in their products, ranging from flip-flops to fleece – is how the patch might be scooped up and recycled. The best explanation I’ve read was this, from the Washington Post’s Green Lantern, written by Nina Shen Rastogi:
“(We) always thought the Garbage Patch was a huge, waterborne landfill — sort of like a massive hair clog in a big drain. In reality, it’s not so much an island of trash as a thin, soupy area of litter, mostly in the form of tiny flecks of plastic, studded here and there with old fishing gear and children’s toys. Even if you were to sail right through the Patch, the water probably wouldn’t look too remarkable, unless you scooped some up and looked at it closely. So cleaning this part of the ocean isn’t as simple as you might imagine.
“Because the trash is so dispersed, it’s not like we can just steer a big ship out to sea and pick up the Garbage Patch. Collecting all those small fragments of plastic would be extremely expensive. Plus, thanks to a variety of factors — from winter storms to El Niño — the Garbage Patch moves, making it hard to target effectively. Finally, in gathering up those little scraps, you also run the risk of catching — and killing — any marine animals living amid the debris, many of which are the same size as the plastic bits.
“For all these reasons, most organizations stress that the best way to keep oceans clean is to prevent garbage from getting there in the first place. (We) know of one group that’s actively testing methods for removing trash from the open seas: the San Francisco- and Hong Kong-based Project Kaisei. In the expeditions it is planning for 2010, Project Kaisei will focus on picking out big, derelict fishing nets, which can snare marine life in a process known as “ghostfishing.” It’s also planning to use modified purse seines — large nets used by commercial fishing operations — to collect the medium-sized pieces of garbage floating near the surface of the water. Finally, the project will continue to experiment with methods of gathering the smaller bits of debris.
“Kaisei — which receives some of its funding from a recycling trade organization — is also looking for ways to squeeze value from the trash it collects. Currently, the group is focusing on methods that use pyrolysis — in which heat is used to break down materials in the absence of oxygen — to transform the collected waste into fuel. Some experts, however, are skeptical that this particular solution will make economic sense.
“Meanwhile, we ought to know a lot more about the Garbage Patch before making a decision as to whether large-scale cleanup operations are viable or even warranted. There are still a lot of basic questions that remain unanswered. For example, no one has accurately estimated how much garbage enters the ocean each year. And despite the oft-repeated claim that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “twice the size of Texas,” we don’t really know the exact size of the Patch or how much garbage it contains.
“Nor do we fully understand the precise impact of ocean trash. It’s possible that, when all is said and done, we’ll decide it’s better to leave the Patch alone, rather than bringing all those bits and pieces back on land and dealing with a brand-new disposal headache. (Particularly when you consider all the emissions associated with fueling collection vessels.) Scientists do know that the marine debris can entangle or otherwise harm sea life: For example, animals may eat the garbage, which can not only lacerate their throats and stomachs but can also make them feel so full that they stop eating actual food. But it’s hard to say with certainty exactly how many animals are killed this way. Some of the garbage patches in the Pacific have more teeming ecosystems than others , whereas the larger Garbage Patch itself (the area between California and Hawaii) is a relative dead zone, biologically. However, no matter where debris resides, it can pose a threat to wide-foraging seabirds such as the albatross. And, because garbage patches move, they can also sweep trash onto land, endangering shore animals such as seals.
“There are even more questions about the risks posed by those tiny bits of plastic. It’s well-established that plastic can absorb certain toxic pollutants such as PCBs and DDT, and that those pollutants — if absorbed into an animal’s fat tissues — can work their way up the food chain. But according to Miriam Goldstein, who served as principal investigator on a recent expedition to the Garbage Patch, we can’t yet draw any firm conclusions about the plastic’s effects on human health. For example, while we do know that some fish species are eating these specks of plastic, we don’t know whether they’re doing so in numbers. We also don’t know whether ingesting bits of polluted plastic is enough to transfer those toxins from the plastic into the fish’s fatty tissues. (For that matter, there’s already plenty of PCBs and DDT in the water itself, so even if we could remove all the plastic from the ocean, we wouldn’t necessarily be fixing the toxic fish problem.)
“None of this is to say that plastic in the oceans shouldn’t be an area of concern. But unless the flow of garbage is stanched at the source, cleanup can only ever be a temporary solution.”
Two weeks ago my friend Captain Charles Moore – discoverer of the now-famed North Pacific Garbage Patch – pushed off from the docks in Long Beach aboard the ORV Alguita for a four-month-long exploration of the sizable floating plastic trash pile he initially brought to light a decade ago.
The 2009 exploration, divided into two segments, will first take Moore and his team to Hawaii and then to the heart of the swirling gyre, where he first measured six times as much plastic afloat near the surface as plankton.
The first leg, June 10- July 25, is underway and should take the crew around the North West Hawaiian islands, north of Midway and Kure.
Their pre-cruise expectation: The quantity of plastic pollution in the ocean is increasing rapidly, paralleling the rapid rise in global plastic production. Each time the ORV Alguita crew collects samples from the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), we find that the abundance of plastic has increased since our previous visit. In previous research voyages we have found a very high abundance of plastic in the area of the gyre that has come to be known as “The Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch”, but we suspect that the contamination is much more widespread. This summer we will have the opportunity to test this hypothesis during the first voyage of our four month research expedition. During this voyage the ORV Alguita research crew will be at sea for over six weeks as they sail west from California past the Northern Hawaiian Islands as far as the International Date Line (180 degrees longitude) to sample areas of the Pacific Ocean previously un-sampled for plastic marine debris. We will be collecting samples of plastic debris, plankton and fish to analyze back in our laboratory to better understand not only the quantity of plastic debris pollution in remote areas of the ocean, but also the impacts the plastic is having as it is consumed by marine animals. Below is a map that shows the area where ORV Alguita has sampled for plastic pollution over the past 10 years. The first voyage of the summer expedition hopes to extend the study area all the way to the International Date Line at 180 degrees longitude.
The second leg of the expedition, expected to begin early in August, will take the boat on a giant loop one thousand miles north of Hawaii, into the NPSG. Moore is convinced the percentage of plastic in the gyre will have increased during the past decade, but this exploration will bring back hard evidence. While lots of people have talked about visiting the site it is tricky to reach – halfway across the Pacific Ocean, between Russia and California – so very few scientific efforts have actually taken place.
Moore and crew are posting daily logs, so … tune in.
A few nights ago in Santa Barbara I had the good fortune of meeting Captain Charles Moore, the discoverer of the amazingly well known garbage patches in the North Pacific Gyre – the 600 square mile of circulating ocean where they found plastic in the surface waters outweighing zooplankton six to one. Virtually every talk I give, someone has read about the patch and mentions it to me.
Moore’s discovery was ten years ago this summer, aboard his 50-foot aluminum hulled catamaran the “Algalita.” When we met I asked what he was up to now and he suggested a phone call to explain, which we had yesterday. Turns out he’s planning to head back to the North Pacific this summer, to revisit the area near Hawaii that he and his team sampled a decade ago and then attempt to go further west.
Samples from the "Algalita's" catch
“I’m convinced the amount of plastic in the ocean in that part of the world is doubling every ten years and I want to go back and prove it. But I’m also convinced the area to the west between Hawaii and the International Date Line is even worse.” Again the “Algalita” will drag collection nets to gauge just how much plastic is swirling around on the surface of the gyre and carry back samples of fish to assess both toxin levels and plastic ingestion.
“It’s an amazing thing to see,” he says from his office in Long Beach, “there’s so much plastic in the sea out there it feels like you could almost step off the boat and walk on it. It’s not quite that thick … but close.”
His Algalita Marine Research Foundation has committed to studying some of the planet’s most remote parts of the ocean, which is not inexpensive. Like most environmental research groups, he’s right now patching together monies for the two-month long expedition. It’s revelatory to me that though his initial research and his Garbage Patch have attracted international attention yet he still finds it hard to find funding for his continued research. Given my interest in the subject of ocean pollution – particularly plastic pollution, which we’ve seen all around the world – we’re pondering how OCEANS 8 and our film production arm might get involved, which I’m sure will happen at some level.
For more Moore and the “Algalita,” check this collection of blogs on the subject of plastic and the ocean.
I do sixty, seventy talks a year in settings ranging from the Grosvernor Hall at the National Geographic Society to the occasional noisy barroom. I never know in advance whether two or one thousand people will show up and rarely have a clue who’ll be in the audience. I’m always surprised, most often favorably.
I drove up to Santa Barbara for the weekend, from Los Angeles where we are wrapping the edit of our Antarctica film (“Terra Antarctica, Re-Discovering the Seventh Continent’), to meet the Southern California chapter of the Explorer’s Club. It was a super-charged weekend in part because the Club’s Board of Directors was in town simultaneously to elect a new president, which it did.
At the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum
The highlight of a small dinner on Friday night was reconnecting with my friend Jean-Michel Cousteau, who lives nearby and is also spending his days locked in a small editing room, finalizing two new films – “Sea Ghosts” about belugas and “The Call of the Killer Whale” about orcas – for his Oceans Future Society which air on April 8 and April 22, respectively. His remarks to the Board were warm and succinct and reminded everyone not to forget about educating our children about the state of environmental affairs and our oceans, but also their grandparents. “Generally they have plenty of time on their hands and love spending it with their grandchildren. So don’t forget to talk to them too.”
Saturday’s night talk at the beautiful Santa Barbara Natural History Museum was well received by another highly charged crowd of 200. Again, you never know who’ll show up for your talks, and I was stunned afterwards as people introduced themselves to meet a former head of NASA, a member of Thor Heyerdahl’s “Kon Tiki” team, an Antarctic veteran who’d wintered over in 1956-57 as part of the International Geophysical Year and other real adventurers and scientists.
I was particularly impressed when a man rushed up with a small gym bag and pulled out a couple jars filled with seawater and bits of plastic, which he had collected in the North Pacific. This was Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, whose pioneering work dragging nets around the North Pacific Central Gyre – the so-called East and West Plastic Patches – has identified that there is six times as much plastic as zooplankton in its surface waters. Given my own recent experiences about the incredible abundance of plastic in our ocean, meeting Moore was a true highlight.
Photo, Gene Arias