On Tuesday, the New York Times published an article on the North Pacific Gyre called “Afloat in the Ocean, Expanding Islands of Trash.” Written by Lindsey Hoshaw, it was the culmination of a $10,000 freelance journalism project* in which she visited the gyre with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. Unfortunately, this NYT article was far below their usual standards. Not only did it not add anything new to the discussion, but it significantly misrepresented the state of the science, presenting broad estimates & conjecture as facts.
I sent a list of corrections to the New York Times, and I am republishing them here as well. They are in the order they appear in the article. Because there are so many, I have kept each explanation brief, but please ask in the comments if you would like elaboration. Thanks to my SIO colleagues Kristen Marhaver and Mike Navarro for their suggestions!
In this remote patch of the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles from any national boundary, the detritus of human life is collecting in a swirling current so large that it defies precise measurement.
The gyre is not a current, but a lack of currents. Please see Pete’s explanation of convergence zones for more detail.
…an area of widely dispersed trash that doubles in size every decade and is now believed to be roughly twice the size of Texas.
There is no evidence for this. There certainly is a lot of trash, but there have been no measurements of either the trash’s total area or its growth rate.
But one research organization estimates that the garbage now actually pervades the Pacific, though most of it is caught in what oceanographers call a gyre like this one — an area of heavy currents and slack winds that keep the trash swirling in a giant whirlpool.
There is evidence for debris in some other areas of the Pacific, namely in the California Current, off Japan, and in the Alaskan Gyre, but there are few measurements from the southern hemisphere. A few studies have studied macrodebris – big stuff floating around or washed up on islands – but I am not aware of any microdebris studies there. And again, the gyre is defined by a LACK of currents, not “heavy currents.”
Scientists say the garbage patch is just one of five that may be caught in giant gyres scattered around the world’s oceans.
This is a very poor description of oceanic circulation. There are five major gyres, but lots of minor ones (e.g., the Alaskan Gyre). There is no evidence for all five major oceanic gyres containing large amounts of trash – only the North Atlantic and North Pacific have been studied. It certainly could be the case, but we don’t know yet.
Millions, billions, trillions and more of these particles are floating in the world’s trash-filled gyres.
As above, there is no evidence for all gyres being filled with trash. Also, though I realize writing is trying to be poetic, we do not know how many particles there are, but there may not be “trillions.”
Scientists…say that fish tissues contain some of the same chemicals as the plastic. The scientists speculate that toxic chemicals are leaching into fish tissue from the plastic they eat.
This is highly misleading. Fish tissues may contain pollutants, but no current evidence that they contain chemicals transferred from ingestion of plastic. There is only one study of this kind, and it was done on birds in the laboratory. To be fair, the article did say “speculate,” but it should have been clearer on the current state of the science.
Fish that feed on plankton ingest the tiny plastic particles.
We do not know if significant numbers or important species of fish are ingesting plastic. We are studying this now, and it continues to be unclear.
The researchers say that when a predator — a larger fish or a person — eats the fish that eats the plastic, that predator may be transferring toxins to its own tissues, and in greater concentrations since toxins from multiple food sources can accumulate in the body.
There is no current evidence of this, particularly since food species of fish (e.g., tuna) do not inhabit the gyre. The gyre is a biological desert – it is an area of very low productivity and there are very few large fish there. Top predators certainly do accumulate toxins like methylmercury, but that is not related to plastic ingestion.
“I saw much higher concentrations of trash in the Pacific garbage patch than in the Sargasso,” Ms. Monteleone said, while acknowledging that she might not have found the Atlantic gyre.
The Sargasso Sea is in the North Atlantic Gyre, and nearly synonymous with it, so I don’t know what this means. It might be possible to be in part of the North Atlantic Gyre without seeing the seaweed Sargassum, but it is impossible to be in the Sargasso Sea without being in the North Atlantic Gyre.
Water samples from February contained twice as much plastic as samples from a decade ago.
This is a very difficult claim to make without controlling for the medium- and small-scale variation of plastic abundance. Even in the same year, some areas have little plastic and some areas have a lot of plastic. Without controlling for these variations, the increase in plastic can’t be measured accurately.
*If you’re interested in how the story was funded, I recommend checking out Hoshaw’s fundraising page at Spot.us, as well as Megan Garber’s critical article at the Columbia Journalism Review and John Zhu’s thoughtful blog post.