You might have seen the headlines last week: Big rise in North Pacific plastic wastePlastic in ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ increases 100-foldOcean Trash is a Lifesaver for Insects, and so forth. These were based on a paper that I wrote with two co-authors, which came out in Biology Letters last week. Because the paper has gotten so much media attention already – including my very first Ed Yong original! - I’m not going to blog about the paper directly. Instead, I’m going to give you a glimpse behind the scenes. Since scientists-vs-media is a perennially hot topic on science blogland, I’ll explain how we prepared for and managed the media in order to achieve coverage with which we were mostly quite happy.

Having worked on North Pacific oceanic marine debris for a number of years, I knew this was going to be a hot topic. We were taken aback by the intensity of the media and public interest in our 2009 cruise to study plastic in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and interest has remained steady over the past few years. So once the paper was in press, about 2-3 weeks before online publication,  I gave a copy of the paper to Scripps public information officer Mario Aguilera. I’ve worked with Mario for several years now – he even came to sea with us! (that’s him on the BBC website deploying the manta net with me) – and I knew he was very familiar with the work. Mario completed the press release about a week before the paper came out, which gave me, my co-authors, and my advisor plenty of time to review it. Preparing for press coverage carefully ahead of time also gave us time to ask Anthony Smith for permission to use his wonderful sea skater photo, which you can see on the Scripps website. The paper was embargoed until Wednesday, May 9th, but media had access to it for a week beforehand. I started getting calls and emails on the Monday before it was released, which built to quite a number of inquiries by Wednesday.

My personal media policy is this: my work was paid for by United States taxpayers, California taxpayers, and private donors, and so I’ll talk to anyone who asks me polite and coherent questions, if my schedule allows. This means that I’ve done 28 interviews since last Monday – and they’re still trickling in. All these interviews probably did cost me a couple days of work – but I spent 2.5 years and a lot of money on the science on this paper! A couple of days talking to the media to tell the public what they paid for is more than fair recompense.

Our preparations and Mario’s hard work in wrangling lots of scheduling made all 28 interviews run reasonably smoothly. Also, my long-time participation in science outreach was a plus – for example, I had used Twitter to ask BBC reporter Jonathan Amos to stop by my poster at the Ocean Sciences Meeting this past February, so he was already familiar with the research before even writing the story. Doing lots of science outreach also meant that I was practiced in explaining this work to a general audience, so I wasn’t doing it for the first time when talking to a journalist. One surprising barrier was my lack of a land line – I don’t have one in my office or home. (I use a Google Voice number for my “office phone.”) I suspect this type of setup is increasingly common among younger scientists (and people in general), so I encourage the journalists out there to get familiar with Skype as a workaround. I did a couple video interviews over Skype and it worked well, though it’s probably not for novice communicators, since talking alone in your office to your laptop camera is quite challenging.

While I was pretty pleased with accuracy of the media coverage as a whole, I did run into some problems that were largely my fault. I should have realized that I needed to more carefully explain the difference between size (“Size of Texas!” which is not accurate) and concentration (100-fold increase in the number & mass of plastic PER unit seawater, which is accurate). When talking about fish eating plastic (a separate study done by Scripps students last year), I should have been more careful to mention that these fish swim up to the surface every night, and therefore may be eating plastic there, not in the depths of the ocean. That’s the stereotypical scientist trip-up - Diel Vertical Migration is an ocean phenomenon engrained in my SOUL, but it is definitely not common knowledge. Problems from the media side of things primarily stemmed from careless readings of the press release – for example, we found that sea skater EGGS were increasing, but couldn’t show statistically that sea skater ADULTS were increasing, which some reporters misunderstood.

I’m extremely grateful to Biology Letters for making our paper open access. I chose to publish in Biology Letters in part because everything is open access a year after publication, but I didn’t have the funds to make the paper open access right away. (See that pretty color figure? That’s where my money went.) I’m thrilled that Biology Letters editors saw the public interest in this topic and decided to make the paper freely available to all. I’ve made the new data from the paper open access as well – anyone can download it and take an in-depth look at Pacific plastic pollution themselves. (Thanks to the NSF-funded California Current Long Term Ecological Research site for hosting it.)

And of course, it was all worth it – because we were featured in the Onion! (“Better than Science or Nature,” according to my Twitter friends…)

I hope that this is helpful to other scientists who may be facing similar media situations. Please feel free to ask questions or share your own experiences in the comments.

[cross-posted at Deep Sea News]

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | May 9, 2012

Plastic Trash Altering Ocean Habitats, Scripps Study Shows

A new SEAPLEX paper is out in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters! Here’s the press release:

A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. (more)

The journal has kindly made the paper free to download, so you can check it out here. Please note there is a typo in Figure 1 – the panel labels for B and C are switched. (We’re working on getting it fixed.) UPDATE: it’s fixed!

And here’s an incomplete list of the media coverage:

The first SEAPLEX results are out in the scientific literature! Scripps graduate students Pete Davison and Rebecca Asch found plastic in 9% of mesopelagic fishes. Press release:

Scripps Study Finds Plastic in Nine Percent of ‘Garbage Patch’ Fishes

SEAPLEX researchers estimate tens of thousands of tons of debris annually ingested by fish in middle ocean depths of North Pacific Ocean

Scripps Institution of Oceanography / University of California, San Diego

The first scientific results from an ambitious voyage led by a group of graduate students from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego offer a stark view of human pollution and its infiltration of an area of the ocean that has been labeled as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Matt Durham, Jim Leichter and Pete Davison deploy a Matsuda-Oozeki-Hu Trawl at the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre during SEAPLEX.Matt Durham, Jim Leichter and Pete Davison deploy a Matsuda-Oozeki-Hu Trawl at the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre during SEAPLEX.

Two graduate students with the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition, or SEAPLEX, found evidence of plastic waste in more than nine percent of the stomachs of fish collected during their voyage to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Based on their evidence, authors Peter Davison and Rebecca Asch estimate that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000- to 24,000 tons per year.

Their results were published June 27 in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

During the SEAPLEX voyage in August 2009, a team of Scripps graduate students traveled more than 1,000 miles west of California to the eastern sector of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps research vessel New Horizon. Over 20 days the students, New Horizon crew and expedition volunteers conducted comprehensive and rigorous scientific sampling at numerous locations. They collected fish specimens, water samples and marine debris at depths ranging from the sea surface to thousands of feet depth (See SEAPLEX Oceanographic Equipment).

Of the 141 fishes spanning 27 species dissected in the study, Davison and Asch found that 9.2 percent of the stomach contents of mid-water fishes contained plastic debris, primarily broken-down bits smaller than a human fingernail. The researchers say the majority of the stomach plastic pieces were so small their origin could not be determined.

“About nine percent of examined fishes contained plastic in their stomach. That is an underestimate of the true ingestion rate because a fish may regurgitate or pass a plastic item, or even die from eating it. We didn’t measure those rates, so our nine percent figure is too low by an unknown amount,” said Davison.

 Scripps graduate student researchers Rebecca Asch (left) and Pete Davison.<br />
” border=”0″ hspace=”0″ vspace=”0″ />Scripps graduate student researchers Rebecca Asch (left) and Pete Davison.</p>
</div>
<p>The authors say previous studies on fish and plastic ingestion may have included so-called “net-feeding” biases. Net feeding can lead to artificially high cases of plastic ingestion by fishes while they are confined in a net with a high concentration of plastic debris. The Scripps study’s results were designed to avoid such bias. The highest concentrations of plastic were retrieved by a surface collecting device called a “manta net,” which sampled for only 15 minutes at a time. The short sampling time minimizes the risk of net feeding by preventing large concentrations of plastic from building up, and also by reducing the amount of time that a captured fish spends in the net. In addition to the manta net, the fishes were also collected with other nets that sample deeper in the water column where there is less plastic to be ingested through net feeding.</p>
<p>The new study focused on the prevalence of plastic ingestion, but effects such as toxicological impacts on fish and composition of the plastic were outside of the study’s goals.</p>
<p>The majority of fish examined in the study were myctophids, commonly called lanternfish because of their luminescent tissue. Lanternfishes are hypothesized to use luminescence for several purposes, including counter-illumination (thwarts predators attempting to silhouette the lanternfish against sunlight), mate attraction and identification and illumination of prey. Such fish generally inhabit the 200- to 1,000-meter (650- to 3,280-foot) depth during the day and swim to the surface at night.</p>
<p>“These fish have an important role in the food chain because they connect plankton at the base of the food chain with higher levels. We have estimated the incidence at which plastic is entering the food chain and I think there are potential impacts, but what those impacts are will take more research,” said Asch.</p>
<div><img src=Researchers collected confetti-sized flecks of plastic during the expedition.

Rather than a visible “patch” or “island” of trash, marine debris is highly dispersed across thousands of miles of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The debris area cannot be mapped from air or space, so SEAPLEX researchers collected samples in 132 net tows (130 of which contained plastic) across a distance of more than 2,375 kilometers (1,700 miles) in an attempt to find the boundaries of the patch. The region, a “convergence zone” where floating debris in water congregates, is generally avoided by mariners due to its calm winds and mild currents. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre has been understudied by scientists, leaving many open questions about marine debris in the area and its long-term effects on the marine environment.

“This study clearly emphasizes the importance of directly sampling in the environment where the impacts may be occurring,” said James Leichter, a Scripps associate professor of biological oceanography who participated in the SEAPLEX expedition but was not an author of the new paper. “We are seeing that most of our prior predictions and expectations about potential impacts have been based on speculation rather than evidence and in many cases we have in fact underestimated the magnitude of effects. SEAPLEX also clearly illustrates how relatively small amounts of funding directed for novel field sampling and work in remote places can vastly increase our knowledge and understanding of environmental problems.”

SEAPLEX was supported by the UC Ship Funds program, Project Kaisei/Ocean Voyages Institute and the National Science Foundation.

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | April 12, 2011

Plastic pollution on Hawaii’s famed green sand beach

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to Hawaii for the 5th International Conference on Marine Debris. (You can see my tweets at @seaplexscience, or the conference hashtag #5imdc.) This was my third time in Hawaii this year, but since the first two visits were to catch a ship and immediately leave, I’d never seen much of Hawaii outside of the Honolulu docks and Home Depot. So after the conference, my husband and I headed out for a week on the Big Island.

We decided that we had to see the Big Island’s famed green sand beach. Green sand beaches are very rare (there’s only two in US territory – this Hawaiian one, and one in Guam). The green color is caused by olivine crystals eroding out of lava flows, so you need both a nice erodible lava flow, and a relatively calm area of coast where a beach can form. There are no towns or good roads near the Big Island’s green sand beach – it’s way down on South Point, and the last 2.5 miles can only be accessed by 4-wheel drive or on foot. We like to hike and so we walked.

On our walk to the beach, I was pretty shocked at the vast amount of washed-up plastic debris that we saw in the middle of nowhere on South Point. Having studied plastic marine debris for the last three years, I was intellectually familiar with Hawaii’s marine debris problem, but seeing it with my own eyes (especially when my brain was in hiking mode) was a saddening experience. Despite a recent beach cleanup which was bagged and waiting for pickup, countless plastic items and bits were mixed with the driftwood on the black lava rock beaches.

Plastic debris mixed with driftwood amongst black lava rocks.

More plastic debris along coast.

Bags from beach cleanup, South Point, HI

These bags were waiting for pickup after a beach cleanup. The sad face is for the amount of trash - perhaps I should have made a happy face for the cleanup!

After a pleasant (except for the trash) 45 minute walk, we reached the green sand beach. It was spectacular – the green sand washes out of an eroding volcanic cinder cone.

Green sand beach on Big Island, HI

The green sand beach! The layered cliff in the back is the eroding cinder cone. The SUV parked to the left of the cone gives a sense of scale.

Olivine crystals eroding out of the cliff

Olivine crystals eroding out of the cinder cone cliff. Aren't they pretty? Also, idiots who carve their fool names into beautiful scenic things go to the SPECIAL hell. AND get cursed by Pele.

But even on the green sand beach, there was plastic everywhere. It wasn’t as obvious as on the lava rocks, but the high tide line was marked by a wandering line of tiny plastic particles, with the occasional larger item. While my husband frolicked in the waves, I couldn’t resist picking up the tiny bits. It only took me 10 minutes to get an entire handful.

Handful of plastic debris from green sand beach

My handful of plastic debris from the green sand beach.

Plastic particles along the high tide line

Plastic particles (and a little wood) along the high tide line, with my toes for scale.

Closeup of green sand, wood bits, and plastic

Closeup of green sand, wood bits, and plastic. Oh, I love those olivine crystals.

Scientifically, it was pretty interesting. The plastic bits I picked up on the beach don’t look like the ones we found way out in the Gyre – there are more colors, especially blue and pink, and the pieces are not as weathered. I’m going to run some of them through our spectrometer to see what type of plastic they are. But personally, my tiny glimpse of the huge scope of Hawaii’s marine debris problem was very sad.

This week I’m at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, HI. (Oh, the things I do for science!) From the conference website:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the United Nations Environment Programme are co-organizers of the conference, which will bring together international marine debris researchers, natural resource managers, policy makers, industry representatives, and the nongovernmental community. This conference will highlight research advances, allow sharing of strategies and best practices to assess, reduce, and prevent the impacts of marine debris, and provide an opportunity for the development of specific bilateral or multi-country strategies.

I’ll be tweeting from the conference under the SEAPLEX account, @seaplexscience. You can follow along with me and other conference tweeters at the hashtag #5IMDC.

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | January 10, 2011

Does the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” exist?

Ever since SEAPLEX was funded around two years ago, I have begun every one of my general audience talks (and even a few scientific ones) with a display of misleading and confusing headlines on the accumulation of trash in the North Pacific. According to these headlines, it’s twice the size of America, 3.5 billion …something…(they don’t say what), stretching from Hawaii to Japan. Most of these claims cannot be supported by any scientific data of which I’m aware.

Headlines with misconceptions about the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"

As a scientist, it can be pretty frustrating to see these misconceptions repeated and repeated for years on end. That’s why the SEAPLEX team has done our best to accurately relay our observations from our own voyage to the North Pacific Central Gyre, and to refer people to reliable sources such as the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s FAQ. But I suspect the persistence of these misconceptions is why Oregon State University oceanographer Angelique White stated in a press release last week that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is “grossly exaggerated.”

Since that press release and the ensuing media coverage, I’ve received many requests for clarification. If there’s no garbage patch, what the heck were we measuring back in 2009? But actually there’s no conflict between Dr. White’s statements and SEAPLEX findings. In this blog post, I’ll explain a few of the key points from the OSU press release.

“…it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic.”

Reports that plastic outweighs plankton stem from a 2001 study by Moore et al., published in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Most oceanographers, including myself, do not think that comparing the dry weight of plankton and plastic is a helpful way of understanding what is going on in the ocean. The reasons for this are somewhat technical, but you can read about them in this blog entry, which I wrote a year before I starting doing my own research on plastic in the North Pacific. I believe that this method is no longer much used – in a recent post at the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s blog, Marcus Eriksen of Algalita Marine Research writes “…it’s important to describe plastic to plankton ratios as an anecdote, but not worth quantifying.” Read his whole blog entry for the anti-plastic activist take on Dr. White’s press release.

As for an exponential increase in plastic, there is evidence that plastic debris increased from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s and 1990s. For example, a study by Robards et al. (1997) found more plastic in the stomachs of Arctic and subarctic seabirds in the late 1980s than between 1969-1977. After the mid-1980s, the trend becomes unclear. The only study of which I am aware that has measured this is Gilfillan et al. (2009). Using archived samples, they measured plastic in the California Current (not the gyre itself) in 1984, 1994, and 2007, and did not detect a significant increase.

“The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas.”

In order to understand this, I emailed Dr. White directly, and she was happy to explain her calculations. First, remember that the vast majority, more than 90%, of the plastic found in the NPG are tiny – less than the size of your pinky fingernail. These pieces are spread out over the surface making them very hard to see with the naked eye. Mostly, the ocean just looks like ocean. In fact, here’s a photo I took smack in the middle of the “Eastern Garbage Patch” this fall:

But when you tow a fine-meshed plankton net through this same area, there are thousands of tiny plastic crumbs. They’re just really small, and fairly spread out on the surface of the ocean. Here’s a photo of the highest plastic densities I’ve ever seen in three trips to the Gyre, measured from a small boat on a glassy calm day. This is an area about the size of a dining room table.

Confetti Flecks of Plastic

So how can we reconcile finding plastic over 1,700 miles on SEAPLEX with Dr. White’s calculation that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is just 1% of the state of Texas? There’s actually no conflict at all. Dr. White was looking at the area of the ocean’s surface covered by solid plastic, not where plastic pieces could be found. She calculated the area that would be covered by plastic if all tiny pieces were squished together into a solid “island.” Since the pieces are so small, that’s not very much area.

Many of the SEAPLEX scientists are considerably more concerned about the environmental impacts of these tiny pieces than we would be over a few larger pieces, or even a huge plastic island. There are many reasons for this, including toxins and the potential for such pieces to be ingested, but I think one of the most underrated impacts is the introduction of hard surfaces to an ecosystem that naturally has very few of them. Microbes, plants, and animals that live on hard surfaces are very different than those that live floating freely in the ocean, and adding all that plastic is providing habitat that would not naturally exist out there. To read more about our research, check out our webpage, or for a brief summary, this video podcast.

“If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded…the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

Once again, over 90% of the plastic pieces in the North Pacific Gyre are very small. There is no island, and the pieces are spread over the ocean’s surface. This photo of plastic and plankton collected on SEAPLEX represents an Olympic-sized swimming pool area of ocean (about 600 square meters).

A single manta tow from SEAPLEX. The plastic is the colorful bits floating on top - the fluffy beige and dark stuff in the rest of the jar is plankton.

When we painstakingly pick all that plastic out of the plankton samples, it is indeed a very small volume, only partially filling a container about the size of a nail polish jar (20 mL). However, in that tiny jar may be thousands and thousands of tiny pieces, collected in just 15 minutes of slowly towing a net along the ocean surfaces. Right now we don’t know what impact those pieces are having on the marine ecosystem, but we do know there are a lot of them, and that they can be found over a remarkably vast swathe of the North Pacific.

“Most plastics either sink or float,” White pointed out. “Plastic isn’t likely to be evenly distributed through the top 100 feet of the water column.”

This is true. Though we did find a few pieces of plastic at depth, most of the plastic that we observed on SEAPLEX was right on the ocean’s surface. Plenty of plastic debris has been found resting on the seafloor closer to shore – for example, one study conducted off central California found 6,900 pieces of debris per km2 (Watters et al 2010). I am not aware of any studies that have looked for plastic on the seafloor of the North Pacific Central Gyre – it’s pretty deep out there and considerable time and funds would be required.

Conclusion

Widespread misinformation, as is so common regarding plastic in the North Pacific, serves no one – not activists trying to ban plastic bags, not plastic manufacturers trying to develop ocean-degradable products, not groups developing methods to stop plastic pollution. Our role as scientists is to find out truths about the world, and to interpret and explain them. Debating what the data actually mean is a crucial part of the scientific process.

I think it is fantastic that so many groups and members of the public are passionate about what is happening in an obscure part of the ocean more than 1,000 miles away from any land. But the flip side of this interest is that the healthy scientific debate is going to be more public than usual. This is nothing to fear – in fact, I think it is a great window into how science is done. And I believe that this debate will ultimately be critical to finding a feasible solution to plastic pollution, whether than solution is based on land, at sea, or in legislative change.

Sources

Gilfillan, L., M. Ohman, M. Doyle, and W. Watson. 2009. Occurance of plastic micro-debris in the southern California Current system. CalCOFI Report 50. Retrieved from http://www.calcofi.org/publications/ccreports/251-vol50-2009.html.

Moore, C. J., S. L. Moore, M. K. Leecaster, and S. B. Weisberg. 2001. A comparison of plastic and plankton in the North Pacific central gyre. Marine Pollution Bulletin 42:1297-1300.

Robards, M. D., P. Gould, and J. Platt. 1997. The highest global concentrations and increased abundance of oceanic plastic debris in the North Pacific: evidence from seabirds. Pages 71-80 in Marine debris: sources, impact and solutions. Springer, New York.

Watters, D. L., M. M. Yoklavich, M. S. Love, and D. M. Schroeder. 2010. Assessing marine debris in deep seafloor habitats off California. Marine Pollution Bulletin 60:131-138. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2009.08.019.

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | November 2, 2010

Across the Pacific

I just got back from sampling the North Pacific Gyre with NOAA. We found visible plastic every day in the manta tows once we had entered the North Pacific High, which is the “Garbage Patch” area. The bridge watch also sighted some interesting floating trash – a lime green suitcase was the most unusual – though we weren’t quick enough to get a photo of it.

Brief daily updates about cruise activities were posted here, along with a fine selection of pretty pictures. And I’m always a big fan of science ship fashion – the combination of orange hardhat/workvest and blue-and-yellow boots is TOTALLY going to be the next big thing. (Though can I get a work vest designed to actually fit female anatomy? Please?)

Manta net towed under full moon

Manta net towed off the Okeanos Explorer. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Miriam washes down the manta net

Washing down the manta net dressed in my finest. Image courtesy of NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program.

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | August 9, 2010

“Recycled Island” not a cure for plastic trash in ocean

Originally posted at Deep Sea News

As some of you may know, my graduate research is on plastic debris in the North Pacific Central Gyre. While I am deeply disturbed by the incredible amounts of plastic permeating our oceans, I also feel that taking a critical, scientific look at this issue is key to finding a solution. Misinformation on this issue is rampant – for example, I’ve waged a personal war against this image, which is neither trash nor a gyre.

Which brings me to “Recycled Island.” A Dutch architecture company has proposed to take all the plastic floating in the North Pacific Central Gyre and mold it into a vast island. I first became aware of this when renderings were published on Inhabitat in April, but it has come to the forefront again with articles in io9 and the Guardian, and a post in Metafilter. (Tip of the antennae to Adam E. & Jonathan Gitlin.)

According to the Guardian article:

Recycled Island is a plan to clean up 44 million kilos of plastic waste from the North Pacific Gyre, which stretches from California to Japan, and provide 10,000 square kilometres (3,861 square miles) of sustainable living space in the process. Solar and wave energy would provide power for islanders while sustainable fishing and agriculture could provide their food.

Great! No longer will I need expensive oceanographic cruises to study the open sea! On Recycled Island, I’ll be able to catch exotic open-ocean invertebrates from the comfort of my own recycled porch! But of course, there are a number of issues with this rather romantic plan. And as your friendly neighborhood ocean blogger (who did lead an expedition to measure plastic in the gyre last summer), it is my duty to crush my own hopes and dreams of completing my graduate studies on a luxurious and environmentally correct island, sipping tropical drinks adorned with tiny recycled umbrellas.

The main problem is this: The vast majority of plastic bits (>90%) are smaller than a pencil eraser, and are spread out enough to be mostly invisible to the naked eye. It is therefore extremely hard to remove the plastic without catching a lot of ocean life.

Please allow me to quote myself, from the SEAPLEX FAQ:

The vast majority of the debris is tiny, hard-to-see pieces. The debris is like a thin soup, with some big pieces like nets and bottles intermixed. It looks like this.

We did not observe an island or floating landfill. Our photos are representative of what we saw – larger pieces floating by every minute or so, with the space between filled up with tiny, nearly microscopic bits.

This means that these pieces are the same size as much of the zooplankton. In fact, most of the organizations who have been out to the gyre to measure plastic have used fine-meshed nets (333 microns, for the most part) that are designed to catch zooplankton. When a swimming-pool sized bit of ocean is concentrated into a jar, you get a bunch of little plastic bits, but you also get a bunch of zooplankton. Here’s an example from the SEAPLEX cruise last year:

Plastic and plankton from the North Pacific Gyre in a jar.

Results of a zooplankton tow (using a 333 micron manta net) in the North Pacific Central Gyre, August 2009. This is NOT what the ocean looks like - this pint jar concentrates about a swimming-pool-sized parcel of water. The colored bits on the top are plastic, the beige and black bits on the bottom are zooplankton.

The “Recycled Island” folks may be able to build a giant island out of recycled plastic – I am not an architect and I have no idea if this is feasible. (Though I hope they know that there are hurricanes in Central Pacific…) But I do know that it would be very, very difficult to remove a significant percentage of the plastic without catching a ton of zooplankton. And catching and killing tons of marine life would not be a good way to meet the criteria of the project. From the Guardian article:

Recycled Island could be a unique opportunity to save marine life. “The project should be carried out with great care so no negative influence to the environment is made,” states the project’s website. “Our ideal is to return more balance to the environment and set an example of how an environment-friendly habitat could be created.”

I could say a lot more about how little is known about the impacts of plastic in the North Pacific Central Gyre, or about the ridiculous notion that adding a giant land mass would “return more balance” to the open ocean – but I’ve got to sleep sometime. So to summarize, I do not think Recycled Island is feasible because it would be environmentally damaging to collect enough plastic in the North Pacific Central Gyre to build their enormous island.

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | August 4, 2010

Hunting for plastic with the SSV Seamans

We were able to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge. We looked very, very pretty if I do say so myself.

Hello internets! I am back from a month of sailing from Hawaii to California on the tall ship SSV Robert C. Seamans. The Seamans is run by the Sea Education Association, where undergraduate and high school students can learn oceanography, maritime history, and seamanship aboard one of two gorgeous tall ships, one in the Atlantic, one in the Pacific. (The Southern Fried Scientist is an alumnus – anyone else out there?). The SEA vessels are well-equipped for research (PDF) with all the standard tools of oceanography – CTD, ADCP, winch & hydraulic J-frame, and so on – though it definitely is more challenging to maneuver under sail than by burning tons and tons of diesel fuel.

I was on board as a visiting researcher, continuing my work on the impact of plastic debris on zooplankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre. I did as many plankton tows as time allowed at the surface of the water, filtered lots of seawater to look for plastic particles too small to be caught by the net, and tested live zooplankton to see if they were ingesting plastic. I don’t know what the results are yet – in order to make the most of my time at sea, I just preserved samples as fast as possible, and will go through them now that I am back at the lab. (Also, looking in a microscope at sea makes me hurl.)

Doing a plankton tow off the SSV Seamans. That's me in the purple jacket. Roberto Meléndez took this photo from way up the foremast.

I was totally off the grid while at sea, so instead of trying to capture the full experience, I’m going to do a couple of posts on selected awesome moments and fantastic critters. If you want to know more, just ask in the comments – I can answer there or as an additional post. You can also check out SEA’s excellent Plastic blog for more on science under sail.

Awesome Moment #1

The cruise track was great for my work – we had to sail right through the north-center section of the gyre – but not so great for sailing. After we lost the trade winds north of Hawaii, we experienced very little wind until we got into the westerlies not far from California. I’m used to motoring around and it didn’t bother me much, but of course a tall ship is meant to sail, so the sailors (students as well as staff) all pined away for the wind.

It was flat, glassy calm for about two weeks, forcing us to motor along. Photo by Wei Xin.

The lack of wind did produce one glorious, wonderful moment – SWIM CALL! Swimming is strictly forbidden in the US research fleet due to a tragic incident with a white shark, so I’d never been swimming in the open sea before. (No, I was not worried about sharks. We had people acting as lookouts, visibility was amazing, and shark attacks are vanishingly, vanishingly rare.)

Conditions had to be exactly right to assure everyone’s safety, but we were lucky and the captain decided that the flat calm sea and lack of shark sightings meant that we’d be able to swim. Here I am paddling about, nothing between me and the giant isopods of the abyssal plain except 4000 meters of water.

Swimming in the middle of the Pacific. It was GLORIOUS. Photo by Roberto J. Meléndez.


I managed to borrow a mask & snorkel to hunt for jellies. I didn’t find any (though one of the other scientists did), but I did see single-celled acanthareans floating about, feeding with long pseudopods. It was incredibly cool to see these organisms alive and happy – it’s easy to forget that what we see catch in a net and store dead in a jar is very, very different than what exists in the ocean.

Next: ATTACK OF THE PTEROPODS!!!

[cross-posted at Deep Sea News]

Posted by: Miriam Goldstein | June 27, 2010

SEAPLEX continues this summer

[cross-posted at Deep Sea News]

The romance of the sea, at least in my mind, is tied to the Age of Sail. This might be because of the inherent beauty of tall ships, or maybe because of a wee bit obsession with Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” novels (all 20 books, plus the glossary, plus the recipe book…), or maybe because I’ve always wanted to sing a shanty while actually hauling on a rope. This summer, I’ll finally get my chance.

I’ll be sailing from Hawaii to California with Sea Education Association aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans. (I wrote about their plastic debris cruise in the Atlantic a couple weeks ago). The primary mission of the cruise is student education, but they are very kindly letting me come aboard as a visiting researcher. In fact, I type to you from aboard the Seamans at the dock in Honolulu.

I’ll be continuing the research I started last summer on SEAPLEX, further exploring the impact of plastic debris on marine life in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Since we think the highest concentrations of plastic are on the very surface of the ocean, I’ll be studying with surface-dwelling (neustonic) zooplankton to see if they are interacting with the plastic debris. And I’ll be continuing my studies of the fouling community – the animals that grow directly on the plastic.

So far life on the Seamans is much like life on any research vessel preparing for a cruise – there’s a lot of securing and adjusting and last-minute runs to Home Depot. But as soon as we leave the dock on Wednesday morning, I’m going to get to learn the proper way to haul on a rope and scrub the deck. I’m very, very excited.

I don’t know what the internet situation will be, but if possible I will post updates from our journey across the Pacific. You can also follow the ship’s Twitter feed @SEA_Seamans. See you all in four weeks!

Older Posts »

Categories

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.