Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

Marine scientists found plastic fragments in every sample of ocean water they gathered on the initial leg of the 5 Gyres Project, the first global study of plastic marine pollution.

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

The Sea Dragon now sails across the North Atlantic Gyre

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

 

NORTH ATLANTIC OCEAN—Marine scientists found plastic fragments in every sample of ocean water they gathered on the initial leg of the 5 Gyres Project, the first global study of plastic marine pollution.

“Every single surface sample out in the middle of the Atlantic contained plastic fragments, no matter where we dropped our trawl,” said Anna Cummins. The Santa Monica, CA resident sailed through the North Atlantic between St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands and Bermuda to launch the project with her husband, Dr. Marcus Eriksen. 

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

 

The couple left Bermuda on Jan. 28 for the Azores in the next leg of their trip and the first transatlantic voyage of its kind. They are sailing through the Sargasso Sea, an elongated region in the middle of the North Atlantic surrounded by ocean currents which form the North Atlantic Gyre.

Plastic marine pollution, which may threaten human health, is widely known as prevalent only in the North Pacific Ocean as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” The 5 Gyres Project is attempting to document the artificial detritus in all five gyres on the globe.

“This is a global problem, we’re seeing evidence of plastic pollution everywhere in the world and it’s getting worse,” says Captain Charles Moore, founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF). The 5 Gyres Project is a collaboration among AMRF, Livable Legacy and Pangaea Explorations.

Cummins and Eriksen, directing the project, have worked extensively with Moore. The amount of plastic  they found during their initial 1,070-mile leg, skirting the North Atlantic Gyre aboard the racing sloop Sea Dragon, is similar to what they’ve seen in the Pacific.

The accumulation was most dense in windrows, which are river-like surface currents populated by the dense Sargassum plant that traps debris. “In the Sargassum, we found bottle caps, shot gun shells, buckets, bottles, crates and even a rubber boot!” Cummins said.

In Bermuda, Cummins and Eriksen delivered public and school lectures, combed the beach with clean-up groups and met U.S. Consul General Grace Shelton. They expect to return to California in late February, after presenting their findings at the 2010 Ocean Sciences Conference in Portland, OR on Feb. 24.

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

 

At sea with 11 other crew members, Cummins and Eriksen are deepening their previous AMRF research focus, which has been to quantify floating plastics, including micro-plastic fragments consumed by fish. Now they’re looking at how this flotsam affects those fish to better understand the human effects of what the Los Angeles Times calls “one of the fastest growing segments of civilization’s toxic waste stream.”

“Plastic particles at sea act as magnets for chemicals like DDT, PCBs, flame retardants and other pollutants,” Cummins says. “The Five Gyres Project is working to advance our previous research with targeted testing to determine if these chemicals accumulate in fish, travel up the food chain and end up on our dinner plates.”

The project’s title sponsor is Blue Turtle. Pangaea Explorations is providing the 72-foot Sea Dragon from which the couple is collecting samples of the ocean’s surface, seafloor sediment and fish for stomach content and tissue analysis.

Later this year, the Sea Dragon will cross the South Atlantic Gyre, which stretches from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town, South Africa. This is expected to be the first such voyage in 30 years in the Southern Hemisphere. After that, Cummins and Eriksen plan to sail to the South Pacific Gyre.

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

 

The 5 Gyres’ Travel Trawls Program loans research equipment to other sailors to collect ocean samples. Currently, four other trawls are being deployed by “citizen scientists” sailing in the Southern Ocean, around Cape Verde off of Africa, in Hawaii and elsewhere.

Travel Trawls will continue to lend research equipment to others to study plastics in the Indian Ocean Gyre and elsewhere. 

“We are hoping to have information from all five gyres in the next couple of years, Eriksen said.  “We will continue to work with citizen scientists to follow the accumulation of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.”

Eriksen and Cummins are maintaining a blog with photos and video about their trip at 5gyres.org. The Sea Dragon’s progress may be followed through GPS technology.    

Because plastic pollution at sea cannot be cleaned up by any practical means, society must stop the problem at its source, the researchers stress.  They advocate legislation requiring companies to take responsibility for recovery and reuse of their products, including economic incentives to promote recovery and bans on single-use disposable products.  Responsible legislation will also create tremendous opportunity for smart, innovative alternative products.

“We can’t recycle our way out of this mess, nor can we clean up what’s already out there,” Eriksen says. “We’re not looking at an accumulation of large plastic chunks, but a thin, diffuse soup of micro-particles.” 

While potential human health effects of marine plastic remain unknown, scientists already estimate that nearly half of all seabird species, all sea turtle species, and 22 species of marine mammals are harmed or killed by plastic waste, either from ingestion, entanglement or strangulation before the debris has been broken down into tiny fragments.

The list of fish species ingesting toxin-laden plastic fragments is growing. AMRF, where Eriksen is director of program development, identified eight such species in 2008.

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”

 

Last spring, Cummins and Eriksen completed a 2,000-mile bike ride to raise awareness of the problem in the North Pacific Gyre, through which Eriksen had sailed aboard AMRF’s JUNKraft made of 15,000 plastic bottles. (The ocean plastic problem has been referred to as a Garbage Patch but is far more diffuse than a single “patch,” which is why Eriksen and Cummins call it plastic soup.)

The couple will follow their second Atlantic voyage this year with a yearlong public awareness project titled “The Last Straw.” This will include a 2,000-mile East Coast cycling-lecture tour and construction in Paris of a boat from one million plastic straws. In that boat, to be called “STRA,” after the RA expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl of the late 1960s, they will sail the Seine River and cross the English Channel.

5 Gyre Project’s title sponsor Blue Turtle is a San Francisco-based membership organization seeking lasting, comprehensive solutions to polluted oceans worldwide through education, source elimination and clean up. Pangaea Explorations, another major sponsor and owner of the Sea Dragon, is dedicated to discovering ground truths about the environment, engaging people in environmental issues, and teaching the next generation to respect and protect their environment.

Key additional sponsorship is provided by Ecousable, Quiksilver Foundation, Surfrider Foundation, Keen Footwear, Patagonia and Aquapac.

 

Email zan@zdscommunications.com for high resolution copies of these photographs of Eriksen and Cummins aboard the Sea Dragon, plastic particles taken from a fish’s stomach, and the 2008 JUNKraft voyage. Media Contact: Zan Dubin Scott, (310) 383-0956; zan@zdscommunications.com

 

Scientists complete initial leg of first global study of ocean “plastic soup”



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