Researchers find plastic ocean trash in Sargasso Sea

Providing more proof that that floating plastic garbage is not confined to a single patch, marine researchers found an abundance of plastic pollution in every sample of ocean water they gathered on the first transatlantic voyage of its kind.


Researchers find plastic ocean trash in Sargasso Sea

Marcus Eriksen, Anna Cummins show that plastic ocean pollution is not confined to a single patch


Anna adjusting the MantaTrawl

Anna adjusting the MantaTrawl


Providing more proof that that floating plastic garbage is not confined to a single patch, marine researchers found an abundance of plastic pollution in every sample of ocean water they gathered on the first transatlantic voyage of its kind.

Skirting a hurricane that caused monster waves three stories tall, Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins of the 5 Gyres Project found confetti-like plastic fragments as well as toothbrushes, bottle caps, and cigarette lighters on their 3,000-mile sail through the Sargasso Sea—a region of the North Atlantic whose eastern half had never been investigated for plastic pollution. The couple’s voyage launched the first global study of marine plastic pollution, which has only been widely known as prevalent in the North Pacific “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

“We found the Great Atlantic Garbage Patch,” said Cummins, who will lecture about the trip with Eriksen at New York’s American Museum of Natural History on March 14. “Our job now is to let people know that plastic ocean pollution is a global problem—it unfortunately is not confined to a single patch.”

The 5 Gyres Project, a collaboration of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF), Livable Legacy and Pangaea Explorations, is an attempt to discover if plastic pollution exists globally, in all of the world’s five gyres. A gyre is a vortex of ocean currents where floating debris tends to accumulate. Gyres exist in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and in the Indian Ocean.

Cummins and Eriksen, newlyweds from Santa Monica, CA, set sail from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Jan. 7, arriving in the Azores 28 days later after a stop-over in Bermuda. Aboard the racing sloop Sea Dragon with 9 other crew members, they crossed through the center of the North Atlantic Gyre, pulling up a trawl full of plastic each of 35 times they dropped the scientific equipment into the water for a sample.

At one point, they skirted the edge of a hurricane that caused 60-mile-per-hour gusting winds and waves more than three stories tall.

“I’ve never seen seas that big before,” said Eriksen, a Gulf War vet who sailed through the North Pacific Gyre in 2008 on JUNK, a raft made of 15,000 plastic bottles. “Fortunately, the bigger waves mostly rolled under us, but plenty of smaller ones tried to wash us off the boat.”

The researchers will examine fish they collected at sea to discover if their stomachs are filled with plastic like those they’ve collected in the Pacific with AMRF. Weather and wave conditions prevented them from gathering enough fish to determine if humans are ingesting DDT, PCBs and other toxins found in plastic particles consumed by fish, but they expect to answer that question with trips across the South Atlantic Gyre in November and the South Pacific Gyre next spring.

Still, many pieces of plastic debris the couple collected had been nibbled at, probably by fish. They also found a triggerfish trapped inside a plastic bucket. They surmise the fish had swum into the bucket then grown too large to back out or turn itself around. “It was spending its life looking at the bottom of a bucket,” Eriksen said.

Eriksen and Cummins will stage a Youth Summit on plastic trash in Los Angeles next spring with a $100,000 grant from the Disney Corp. recently awarded to AMRF. The couple hopes to assemble youth leaders from around the world to share ideas, present projects and build a youth network.

They will return to Santa Monica in late February, after presenting their findings at the 2010 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Portland, OR on Feb. 24. High resolution photos of Cummins and Eriksen aboard the Sea Dragon, fish and plastic debris they collected are available here. Email for high resolution copies of these earlier Sea Dragon photos, photos of plastic particles taken from a fish’s stomach and the 2008 JUNKraft voyage.


The 5 Gyres Project 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.

Because plastic pollution at sea cannot be cleaned up by any practical means, society must stop the problem at its source, Cummins and Eriksen 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 have already documented that nearly half of all seabird species, all sea turtle species, and 22 species of marine mammals have been harmed or killed by plastic waste, either from ingestion, entanglement or strangulation.

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.

Last spring, Cummins and Eriksen completed a 2,000-mile bike ride to raise awareness of the problem in the North Pacific Gyre. They will follow their South Atlantic trip 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, named “STRA” after the RA expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl, 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.

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