Journey to the center of the vortex

Out of sight, out of mind is not necessarily out of body. That’s because a massive accumulation of plastic debris is poisoning the ocean fish humans are consuming.

 

http://journalism.unr.edu/latestnews/app-news/0/109/journey-to-the-center-of-the-vortex/

RSJ NEWS

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE VORTEX

11-25-2009

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From left to right, Corinne Hume (co-principal investigator), Nicole Argyropoulos (co-principal investigator), Margy Gassel (co-principal investigator), and Andrea Neal (principal investigator).

From left to right, Corinne Hume (co-principal investigator), Nicole Argyropoulos (co-principal investigator), Margy Gassel (co-principal investigator), and Andrea Neal (principal investigator).

By Will Sites

Out of sight, out of mind is not necessarily out of body. That’s because a massive accumulation of plastic debris is poisoning the ocean fish humans are consuming. Scientists fresh off a voyage of scientific discovery in the Pacific Ocean are issuing the warning based on data collected in what is commonly referred to as an oceanic garbage patch.

“Sailors avoid this area,” says Margy Gassel, one of a handful of scientists who collected data last August aboard the research vessel Kaisei. Project Kaisei is a non-profit organization dedicated to understanding the impact of marine debris on the ocean environment. The group is focusing on an extensive floating debris field 1,500 miles west of their San Francisco base.

Gassel and others talked to Reynolds School graduate students Nov. 20, describing their voyage aboard the Kaisei sailing vessel as they explored the northern Pacific’s “plastic vortex.”

Known as a gyre, or ringlike system of rotating ocean currents, the large agglomeration of floating ocean trash is made up of human refuse: plastic bottles, milk crates, lighters, fishing nets – anything and everything. “About 80 percent of it comes from the land and 20 percent from boaters, ships and the fishing industry,” says Andrea Neal, one of the lead scientific investigators that collected data on board the Kaisei. But the danger, the data shows, is not in the obvious miles of bobbing trash – it’s what you don’t see.

Tiny bits of plastic. By using a special scoop shaped like (and appropriately named) a manta trawl, the Kaisei Project team took about 50 water samples per day at various depths and locations in the eastern and western portions of the North Pacific. Numerous marine animals were collected for analysis and to build databases for future study. The scientists found small pieces of plastic in every sample taken.

“The size of the plastic is perfect for small fish,” says Neal, noting that the plastic fragments range in size from barely visible to the eye to very obvious. “If it looks like food, they will eat it.”

 The lantern fish is a favorite for many commercial fish, including tuna. And guess what the lantern fish is eating? That’s right – plastic trash found in the gyre. Beyond the aesthetic destruction of the planet’s oceans, scientists believe that the floating trash is a toxic stew for marine animals. Small fish ingest poisonous byproducts of the plastic and they in turn play their part in the food chain by being consumed by larger fish – some of which land on your dinner plate.

 “We find organisms living on the plastic and they attract other organisms that also feed on the plastic – it never ends,” says Gassel, who also works for the California Environmental Protection Agency. Oysters, crabs, mussels, sponges and other types of marine life are often found living on buoys and assorted trash in the garbage patch. The sheer scope and magnitude of ocean trash is often hard for gyre veterans to explain.

 “Garbage patch is a misnomer,” Gassel says, “because it’s millions of tiny fragments of plastic scattered across the ocean.” And it ranges in various locations from Hawaii to the Sargasso Sea, where a scientist named John Carpenter first studied the problem in the early 1970s. Describing the ocean as a fragile ecosystem, Gassel said the trek to the patch has left her distraught about the state of the earth’s environment. “I can’t even express at how distraught I am about what we’re doing to our environment,” she says.

 Videos and photos displayed on Project Kaisei’s Web site bear witness to plastic predicament. Mounds of floating trash intertwined with sea life are often difficult to comprehend. A video of a giant floating ball of commercial fishing nets densely packed with a variety of sea life brings reality into view.

 “This was the size of a Hummer,” Neal says, describing how the Kaisei’s crew tried in vain to remove the deadly pile of netting. “All 25 of us couldn’t get it on board – we even knives and finally a blow torch to cut it up. It was maybe two tons.”

 That was just one of three heaps of net spotted every day. The commercial nets – byproducts of heavy ocean fishing – roll from reef to reef, entangling and killing sea animals indiscriminately. The problem with the nets and the rest of man’s discarded ocean junk is easy to understand, but hard to fix. In the middle of the ocean, out of sight also means lack of enforcement for laws and treaties. Knowing this, the Kaisei scientists are turning to journalism and social media to get the word out.

 “We’re begging for people to hear us,” says Nicole Argyropoulos, a researcher who also spent last August aboard the Kaisei. “For me, it’s a no-brainer (to change society’s habits).” Argyropoulos, armed with practical experience in convincing others to recycle and respect the environment, says even Wal-Mart has changed environmental practices. “You have to show them the good.”

In the meantime, the garbage patch scientists are landlubbers on a mission of education. Teaching alternatives to society’s wasteful ways, they preach the gospel of sustainable fish farming, of recycling and respecting the fragile ecosystems that we inhabit and those we don’t. In the middle of nowhere, where our garbage floats among the myriad of aquatic species, the scientists warn of inaction.

 “We might have only 50 years of (edible) fish left,” says Neal matter-of-factly. “It’s not just me saying it – it’s others too.”

 Facts about plastic:

 *Americans use 700-800 plastic bags each per year

*80 percent of floating plastic comes off the land

*Plastic bottles are manufactured at the rate of 2 million every 5 minutes

*Only 5 percent of plastic bottles are recycled in the United States

*Lighters and toothbrushes are often consumed by birds and marine animals

 

 

http://www.blip.tv/file/2950887

 

 

 

http://www.blip.tv/file/2951032

 



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