On June 10, 2009 Captain Charles Moore set off on Algalita's Oceanographic Research Vessel for the first leg of a four month expedition from California to past the Northern Hawaiian Islands to test for plastic marine debris.
Captain Moore discovered the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, known as the the Pacific Gyre, and he is continuing his research to help all of us understand that the rapid rise in global plastic production is leading to a rise in plastic pollution and its devastating effects on our oceans and our lives.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting emails directly from Captain Moore so we can follow his journey and better understand what we are doing to our oceans.
July 17, 2009
Noon position:36.05N, 179.60E
The main purpose of our voyage to the International Dateline was to see if the concentration of large debris items believed to accumulate there in winter lasted into summer and whether micro debris was also present there in large quantities.
So far we have not found more ghost nets in the area than elsewhere in the gyre, and the micro-debris, while significant, has not been found in heavier amounts than in the Eastern Garbage Patch.
We are here in summer, and it is believed that the nets have dispersed to who knows where by now. We have found fresher debris from Asia, and more Styrofoam (expanded polystyrene), but the concentrations have been extremely patchy.
I think what this voyage has shown us, more than anything else, is that on a scale of meters to a few kilometers, plastic pollution may vary dramatically. While none of our manta trawls have been plastic free, some taken right after each other have had extreme variability in their plastic content.
Just today, as Joel and Drew were filming for a school program using their small net which takes "education samples," (unquantified trawls mixed together for showing the plastic pollution problem to young students and politicians), they informed me that they saw a particularly heavy amount of Styrofoam beads coming up, along with dozens of other plastic particles.
We immediately deployed our larger manta trawl and pulled it for half an hour, but when we observed the resulting sample in a large petri dish, we were surprised to see that no Styrofoam and only a few pieces of plastic were visible.
Scientists are beginning to become more sophisticated in their ability to understand ocean currents on the smaller, "meso " scale, and are looking at what they are calling "sticky" parts of the ocean that can accumulate more plastic debris.
We are seeing this phenomenon on a regular basis as we cull debris out of the ocean by standing on the bow and grabbing it as it floats by with various sized pole nets. We will stand there for 10 or 15 minutes and not see many bits float by, and then there will be a "patch" of many pieces in a short interval, or the concentration may last for some time.
We have also seen "rivers" of calm water and/or plankton that we can navigate and find heavier concentrations of plastic discards than in the surrounding sea water. It must be emphasized, however, that on a larger, or "macro" scale, the entire gyre is a plastic soup or stew of debris.
Every day we pull up a collection of plastic bits and bottles, fishing net parts and buoys, and miscellaneous plastic junk, that now occupies several square meters of deck space. The issue of debris "hot spots" is an important one for NOAA and others who wish to implement "end of pipe" solutions to the marine debris problem.
If they are to be able to make any kind of a dent in the 52 tons a year of ghost nets that impact the new Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument, they need to know where to go to find them in high concentration, as doing what we are doing, sailing along a random transect, has not yet produced even one ton for us.
Their basic strategy is to use known oceanographic parameters that can be measured from satellite, and get a general concentration zone they can then send drone aircraft deployed from ships to find specific targets worth picking up because of their large size.
While NOAA still believes this to be a promising strategy, their first trial voyage last March with a drone aircraft did not succeed in locating any nets. Targeting the areas where derelict fishing gear accumulates and going out and trying to pick it up is what is known as an "end of the pipe" solution.
This term is often used by stormwater managers and refers to the difficulty of treating the storm runoff from urban areas at the end of its journey. Stormwater, running off of the urban hardscape does not have the pollutants it collects along the way filtered out by soil, plants or sand as it would in a natural watershed.
A new strategy is to create settling ponds and natural habitats where pollutants can be mitigated before they arrive at the receiving body, which is usually the ocean or a river or lake.
The problem is creating the political will to convert expensive urban real estate into what amounts to bio-filtration media, and some municipalities can only install expensive ozone treatment systems at the end of the pipe to protect swimmers from bacteria.
These systems may not be able to remove excess nutrients or other contaminants that might still affect sensitive habitats that receive the runoff.
With an internaltional community of nations in disarray, it is also very difficult to develop the political will to deal with the worldwide increase in fishing and synthetic polymer fishing gear. After the establishment of 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones around the coastal nations of the world, the incentive to develop the capability to exploit a nation's marine resources or sell the right to one that could increased dramatically.
The world's fishing fleets became markedly overcapitalized, meaning that there were more nets and boats than fish to catch. With increasing pressure to supply world demand for seafood, it was inevitable that the more economical synthetic polymer nets, lines and floats would be lost in increasing quantities. Accidental loss is not covered under MARPOL Annex V, which prohibits the dumping of plastics anywhere in the ocean. Therefore, no reporting of such losses is required.
Faced with the possible extinction of the critically endangered Hawaiian Monk seal, the only tropical seal, our nation has no choice but to try to remove some of the 52 tons of such nets and gear that impact the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument annually. A long term solution will require the invention of photdegradable or biodegradable fishing gear and reporting and take back schemes on an international level.
It is imperative that more strict regulation of international fishing be implemented and many conservation organizations are working toward this goal. It is our hope that changes in the polymer chemistry of the gear will also be on the table during these discussions.
The schooling fish in the deep ocean are practically gone. We have only caught one tuna in over a month of fishing, and it was a baby skipjack weighing less than half a pound. What we catch are Mahi Mahi which do not school and feed mainly on the pelagic flying fish which we are also seeing in fewer numbers than on previous trips.
We have found plastic in some of the Mahi Mahi and also found them consuming lantern fish and rainbow runner, species which are known to eat plastic fragments.
From the Asian side of the International Dateline
Captain Charles Moore, Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita