Fishing for pollution in the Atlantic

Researchers from the Sea Education Association have removed tens of thousands of plastic fragments from the Atlantic Ocean over the past six weeks in what many believe is just a small part of a giant collection of debris in the middle of the ocean.



Fishing for pollution in the Atlantic

Plastics abundant, but answers elusive


Fishing for pollution in the Atlantic - The Boston Globe


By Marissa Lang
Globe Correspondent / July 14, 2010

Researchers from the Sea Education Association have removed tens of thousands of plastic fragments from the Atlantic Ocean over the past six weeks in what many believe is just a small part of a giant collection of debris in the middle of the ocean.

In their search for marine pollution, crew members of the expedition found more than 48,000 plastic fragments, most no larger than a pencil eraser, of the type of plastic used in bags, straws, bottle caps, and other household materials floating throughout the Sargasso Sea, a region in the middle of the North Atlantic extending south and east of Bermuda.

Some areas may contain up to 500,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer, said scientists from SEA, based in Woods Hole. Such a concentration, the researchers said, would rival that of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean, whose alarming sighting last year highlighted the extent of oceanic pollution and its potential impact on aquatic life.

Most of the Atlantic debris is believed to come from land thousands of miles away. Kara Lavender Law, SEA’s principal investigator, said waste, including materials put in recycling bins, can end up in rivers that flow into the ocean.

“How on earth have we done this to the ocean so far away from where most people are living?’’ Law asked yesterday. “You see objects float by, and you feel like there must be another boat nearby that has dumped all this stuff into the water, but there isn’t. It comes from land.’’

Materials caught in the Sargasso Sea are not likely to make their way back to the East Coast any time soon, Law said, but plastic pollution is still very much a coastal problem.

The only things that reached the SEA team — some 2,500 miles from the US coast — were materials that floated. Other items, such as the plastic used in most disposable water bottles, are too dense to be carried far. Instead, the material probably sank to the ocean floor.

“Only 3 to 5 percent of most plastics actually get recycled,’’ Giora Proskurowski, SEA’s chief scientist, said by phone yesterday from the SSV Corwith Cramer in Bermuda. “It’s not an answer. All those plastic sources we use: one-time water bottles, food packages, individually wrapped apple slices, or other ridiculous things, tiny, tiny fragments of each are ending up in the ocean.’’

Land dwellers may not be immune from the plastic, either.

Although densely concentrated in certain regions, the plastic particles are small, and in some cases, microscopic.

Their size makes the particles, which are not biodegradable and may contain poisonous chemicals, easy for marine animals to ingest. Some creatures can die from the exposure, said Dennis Nixon, associate dean at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

Some scientists suspect chemicals ingested from the plastic may travel up the food chain and could eventually harm humans.

“This could severely impact the food web,’’ Nixon said.

The 33-person crew, made up of 19 volunteers, set out in June, hoping that traveling more than 2,000 miles east of Bermuda would help them pinpoint the size and magnitude of the Atlantic patch of pollution.

To determine the plastic concentration in parts of the Atlantic, the crew towed a 1 meter-wide mesh net alongside the boat for about 30 minutes at a time. The net was examined, and every piece of plastic found was logged, picked off the mesh, and stored on the vessel. Like the debris in the Pacific, it is pulled together by gyres, rotating ocean currents that trap the garbage.

After more than a month at sea, the team will end its research today but without many answers.

“We know there are certain implications: entanglement, sea birds and mammals ingesting the plastic, providing a vehicle that could transport foreign species that could potentially wreck havoc in various ecosystems,’’ Proskurowski said.

“But what we don’t know is what happens when they degrade,’’ he said. “Do plankton eat them? Do they accumulate up the food chain? We don’t have answers to that, and that’s even scarier than knowing what we do know.’’

Wendy Kordesch, 25, a volunteer on the expedition, said the research had transformed her thinking on ocean pollution.

“There’s no floating refrigerators, no garbage islands, but there is a shocking amount of plastic,’’ said Kordesch, an oceanography graduate student from University of California, Santa Cruz. “We were farther away from land than I’ve probably ever been, and in every single tow there are small pieces of plastic that came up. It’s terrible.’’

Marissa Lang can be reached at

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

The Boston Globe



Q&A: How does plastic debris end up in the ocean? 

July 14, 2010 12:38 PM 


Four thousand pieces of plastic and still counting just from one neuston tow. © Leslie Peate / Sea Education Association

Four thousand pieces of plastic and still counting just from one neuston tow. © Leslie Peate / Sea Education Association


The Sea Education Association, based at Woods Hole, recently discovered more than 48,000 plastic fragments in the Atlantic Ocean during an expedition. But researchers fear that might be only a small sample of a bigger problem. SEA answers some questions and answers about ocean debris in this Q&A put together by the group’s researchers.

Q. Where does the plastic and other marine debris come from?

A. In a variety of ways. From land, trash may be carried to the ocean in rivers or storm and sewage drains, swept from the beach by waves and surf, or blown offshore by winds, especially during heavy storms. Trash may also come from ships or offshore platforms, although dumping of plastic at sea has been banned since 1988. We don’t know how much marine debris enters the ocean, or whether most of it comes from land or from vessels at sea.

Q. What does this plastic debris look like, and what kind of plastic is it?

A. The majority of samples we collect are small fragments less than 1 centimeters in size - no bigger than your smallest fingernail - with a mass less than 0.15 g, or about 1/10th the mass of a paper clip. In most cases it is impossible to know what kind of object the plastic pieces came from. The most recognizable pieces are fragments of fishing line and industrial resin pellets (the “raw material” of consumer plastic products).

Physical properties of plastic samples collected by SEA in the Atlantic Ocean indicate the collected material is made of high density polyethylene, low density polyethylene, and polypropylene, which are used to make common household items such as milk jugs, plastic bags, and drinking straws. These materials have a density less than that of seawater, causing them to float on the sea surface.


Marilou Maglione sends the neuston net overboard. © David M. Lawrence / Sea Education Association

Marilou Maglione sends the neuston net overboard. © David M. Lawrence / Sea Education Association


Q. Where are these “garbage patches” in the ocean, and how big are they?

A. The term “garbage patch” is very misleading - there are no large islands of trash floating in the open ocean. Most of the floating marine debris is not even visible from the deck of a ship because it is so small. There are regions of the ocean where floating debris (natural or man-made) accumulates due to the movement of ocean currents. High concentrations of plastic debris have been observed in these “convergence zones” in the North Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, where currents driven by the wind converge or come together. No one has been able to accurately measure the full size of these accumulation regions - not only are they are far offshore and very difficult to access, but boundaries may shift in time due to the ever-changing ocean conditions and the varying (and not well-known) sources of debris.

Q. Why is plastic in the ocean a problem? Does it affect marine organisms?

A. The debris can threaten marine organisms through entanglement, especially by large debris such as derelict fishing gear, and by ingestion in organisms ranging in size from zooplankton to fish and larger animals such as sea turtles and seabirds. Additionally, plastics create a habitat for microorganisms and other species and can transport potentially invasive species to new regions of the ocean. Plastics are known to carry organic toxins and may be responsible for the transfer these and other chemicals to marine organisms.

Q. What happens to the plastic? Does it break down? Is anyone going to clean it up?

A. We don’t know how long plastic remains in the ocean. Most plastics become brittle when exposed to ultraviolet light and break down into smaller and smaller pieces, sometimes referred to as “microplastics”. No one knows just how small these pieces become - they are very difficult to measure once they are small enough to pass through the nets typically used to collect them. Current research suggests that most commonly used plastics will never fully degrade in the ocean.

Because most of the plastic in the ocean is in very small fragments there is no practical way to clean it up. One would have to filter enormous amounts of water to collect a relatively small mass of plastic - in a typical net tow that filters about 120,000 gallons of water, the plastic pieces collected would fit in the palm of your hand. In addition, using nets would also remove a “by-catch” of microscopic plankton and other organisms that are important to the ocean ecosystem. This could end up causing more harm than good.

Q. What is being done to address marine debris in the United States and around the world?

A. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has supported more than 140 projects to address marine debris across the United States. Many other organizations are working to raise awareness, clean up marine debris on beaches and in the ocean, and reduce the input of debris into the oceans through “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle” campaigns.

This is how you can help, no matter where you live: Reduce the amount of trash you produce; choose items you can reuse over disposable products; recycle items if you must dispose of them.

SOURCES: Sea Education Association, NOAA

MetroDesk - The Boston Globe

2 Responses to “ Fishing for pollution in the Atlantic ”

  1. Augusta Potts disse:

    This website has been very helpful to me because I am a student at the University of Phoenix and my claas I am in now is on the environment.This week we are talking about the shortist of fish and the oceans problems such as populltion. We are assigned a task of coming up with a solution to repopulate the ocean before all the fish is gone.

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