Dying from Seas of Debris
Climate change and ocean acidification can be polarizing topics, but here’s something we can all agree on: There’s too much toxic plastic and trash in our fragile seas.
Actually, Plastiki’s voyage was the second such undertaking in recent years. In 2008, scientist and educator Marcus Eriksen and his crew set sail on a three-month passage from Long Beach, California, to Hawai’i aboard Junkraft (www.junkraft.com), a vessel cobbled together from old fishing nets bulging with some 15,000 discarded plastic bottles. Eriksen and his wife, Anna Cummins, have since formed an organization called 5 Gyres (www.5gyres.org), named after the planet’s five major circulating currents. (In addition to the North Pacific, gyres occur in the South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean.)
The group’s mission “is to conduct research and communicate about the global impact of plastic pollution . . . and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the five subtropical gyres.” To that end, 5 Gyres has built five portable surface-sampling research trawls to lend to “vessels of opportunity” such as long-range cruising boats planning to sail through one or more of the respective gyres; they can use the trawls to collect scientific samples of debris and sea life for later analysis. They’ve also partnered with another association, Pangaea Explorations (www.panexplore.com), that employs its 72-foot sloop, Sea Dragon, on research voyages to the various gyres, offering charter berths for paying crew who wish to assist with the program.
Earlier this year, on a voyage from the Caribbean to the Azores via Bermuda and the Sargasso Sea, the Sea Dragon team collected 37 trawling samples en route, all of which tested positive for plastic (one turned up a triggerfish trapped alive in a plastic bucket, as well), thus confirming the existence of significant concentrations of “marine debris” in the North Atlantic gyre, too.
“Our job now is to let people know that plastic ocean pollution is a global problem,” says Cummins. “Such pollution, unfortunately, isn’t confined to a single patch. We’ve managed to leave our footprint, really, everywhere.”
The debris situation in the North Atlantic was confirmed independently in a separate study by undergraduates of the Sea Education Association (www.sea.edu), who have collected, cataloged, and archived since 1986 more than 100,000 individual plastic bits using fine-mesh plankton nets. Last summer, in waters ranging to 1,000 miles east of Bermuda, S.E.A. conducted its latest research voyage aboard the school’s research vessel, the 134-foot brigantine Corwith Cramer. Over the years, the S.E.A. studies discovered the highest concentrations of plastics between 22 degrees and 38 degrees north latitude, an area roughly equivalent to the distance from Cuba to Annapolis, Maryland.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is also conducting independent research, and it’s set up its own website devoted to related ocean issues (http://marinedebris.noaa.gov).
A Synthetic Stew
Of course, plastic in the ocean is only one part of the problem; the litter that washes or is swept ashore is the other. Three young Canadian cruising sailors and surfers made that the focus of their recently concluded three-year circumnavigation aboard the 40-foot Khulula, a mission they dubbed Ocean Gybe. Wherever they stopped, they took to the beaches and conducted detailed pollution surveys, recording their findings in succinct reports that they posted on their website (www.oceangybe.com).
For instance, on the isolated Indian Ocean atoll of Cocos Keeling, because of “the incredible amount of trash” before them, the Ocean Gybe trio had to narrow their sampling to sandals and water bottles as indicators of beach pollution, counting 339 of the former and 246 of the latter in a narrow strip of sand 100 meters long. Eventually, as is already happening in Peru and on many beaches in Hawai’i and elsewhere, the plastic will dissolve into the sand itself, the particles displacing the coral and rock from which the beach was originally formed.
However, much more than the Atlantic or Indian oceans, the endangered North Pacific—and the aforementioned Garbage Patch—has become the poster child and focal point for the excesses of our modern, rampant, throwaway consumer society and its debilitating effects on the high seas. And no one has done a better, more eloquent job of describing and analyzing the phenomenon and its attendant dangers and challenges than the person who’s credited with officially “discovering” it, Charles Moore, an oceanographer and also an offshore sailor.
In 1997, Moore was returning from the Transpac race, which goes from Los Angeles to Honolulu, aboard his 50-foot, Crowther-designed aluminum catamaran, Alguita, when he decided to cut the corner on the delivery back.
“When we got up to the latitude of our home port of Long Beach, 35 degrees north latitude, instead of going up to 40 degrees north and getting the westerlies like most boats, we hung a right and went through the middle of this high-pressure system, these doldrums,” he says. “That’s when we saw this stuff. It wasn’t an ‘Ah-ha!’ moment. But for a week I couldn’t come on deck and not see some human-made object floating by, most of it unidentifiable shards of plastic. But I realized that this wasn’t appearing just for me and that it was unlikely that our single track was polluted and the surrounding area wasn’t.”
Moore did some rough calculations and reckoned that the accumulation of garbage in the broader region he was traversing could equal or surpass the size of a year’s worth of deposits at Los Angeles’ biggest landfill. “I got it in my mind that I had to go back out there and measure it, and that’s what got me involved in the scientific sampling of the area,” he says. In 1999, he did return and eventually published his findings in a seminal paper titled “A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre” that drew the attention of the broader scientific community. Moore also founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to further the study of the impact of plastic contamination on the planet’s oceans.
A.M.R.F.’s core issue, as summarized on the non-profit corporation’s website (www.algalita.org), sounds deceptively simple: “The base of the food chain is being displaced by a non-digestible, non-nutritive component that is actually outweighing and outnumbering the natural food.”
But when you read between the lines, the crux of the message is anything but simplistic. Moore says, “There’s no such thing anymore as a wild-caught organic fish. You can buy organic produce, but not organic fish. They all have pollutants in them at some level. The chemicals in plastic are being transmitted to the food web, from the bottom to the top. It’s a serious issue.”
Moore and his team have returned to the gyre on numerous occasions since his first trips in the late 1990s. On one voyage, they sampled 671 lantern fish, the small baitfish that constitutes 50 percent of the ocean’s fish biomass. From this collection, they extracted 1,350 pieces of plastic, an average of about two per fish.
“These plastic bits are sponges for pollutants,” says Moore. “That’s why they use plastic booms for oil spills. So these plastic particles float on the surface collecting organic pollutants like PCBs and DDT. Then something eats it, and it desorbs into that organism and becomes part of its tissue. Plastics have additives in them that aren’t polymers that leach out and become part of the metabolism of the creatures that ingest the plastic scraps. It’s a hell of a way to make poison pills for everything in the ocean. This is the legacy we’re leaving to future generations.”
Toxic additives used to manufacture plastic items can leach out into their surroundings when exposed to water. And because waterborne hydrophobic pollutants collect and magnify on the surface of plastic trash, the plastic itself is far more deadly in the ocean than on land. But the effects of ultraviolet radiation and of wind and wave action break plastic goods into ever-smaller individual shards called “microplastics.” One of the misconceptions about the North Pacific Garbage Patch is that it’s a giant, swirling island of trash. Actually, it’s more like a vast cauldron of synthetic stew, with patches of higher concentrations of plastic in the eastern Pacific and the western Pacific.