Nothing but the horizon, and plastic pollution
Conservation Careers Blogger Stella Diamant shares her recent work as a research scientist onboard one of The Ocean Cleanup’s ‘Mega Expedition’ vessels in the Pacific. She documents the plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean, and it’s impact on wildlife.
After 3 months spent working 24/7 in Hawaii to coordinate the ‘largest ocean research expedition in history’ it was my turn to leave land and embark on my own Mega Expedition adventure.
The Mega Expedition, led by the Dutch start-up The Ocean Cleanup, aims to quantify the amount of plastics present at the surface of the Pacific Ocean, in the so-called Great Garbage Patch. Thanks to sailboats returning to the mainland from Hawaii after the notorious Transpac Race, volunteer scientists on 25 boats were able to collect previously unavailable data about the amount of plastic floating in the Pacific using sampling devices called ‘manta trawls’. Manta’s, called this way because of their wide wings similar to a manta ray’s, sample the top 15cm of the water surface and only collects items up to 10cm in size.
Plastic pollution and wildlife
Why were we doing this? About 8 million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year due to careless human behaviour and unregulated waste disposal procedures. As a result, at least 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are believed to be present in the oceans, a third of which is concentrated in the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch and threatens the survival of at least 100+ species, such as Laysan Albatross.
Despite all the time spent thinking about what to bring I was nowhere ready to go. As we left, we enjoyed a few hours of idyllic sailing along the scenic West coast of Oahu before we hit the trade winds and what would become routine sea state for the coming weeks; a shock to the system after a landlocked existence. Within a few hours, Hawaii was out of sight and there we were, into the blue for days to come.
Eventually we reached the study area (the yellow box plotted in the last picture of this article), however the weather conditions didn’t improve and the light winds we were hoping to find, necessary in order to deploy the manta trawl, were nowhere to be found. Further complications arose. Due to a problem within the boat’s system we soon realized we couldn’t download weather data, and as a result kept running into intense, short-lived tropical storms; referred to as ‘squalls’ and definitely held accountable for countless hair-rising bumpy moments on starless nights.
Eventually, one morning, as the sun rose during my watch at 5am we witnessed for the first time a calm sea state. It felt like a dream. Hannah quickly took the helm and slowed down the boat to 5 knots as first mate Matt helped me lowering the Manta into the water (see image at the top).
As the trawl hit the water I started the stopwatch and recorded the GPS coordinates. As we retrieved the trawl none of us expected to collect much plastic, as we had just entered the study area and the accumulation zone was believed to be located much further east.
Nevertheless, each trawl we deployed contained high loads of small plastic fragments, fishing lines, nylon fibers but also organic biomass; species that survived by munching on plastic. Despite the growing knowledge about the presence of plastic in our oceans, it still came as a shocking surprise as we hadn’t seen or heard from a human being since a week.
What strikes me the most is while nothing can be seen from the surface, its all in there.
The overwhelming beauty of the ocean, with its ever-changing lights and sheer emptiness makes it difficult for one to fully grasp the gravity of the problem. It is simply sickening to find remains of human consumption where no one lives; items that have been used for a few minutes only, yet those very same fragments of processed petroleum will outlive us and generations to come.
Regardless of the poor weather and the challenging nature of the expedition, a total of 25 boats participated to the Mega Expedition and collected varying amounts of plastic loads depending of their route. We have all witnessed, however, the extent of the problem and hopefully unveiled to the public the gravity of the situation. While one might think that plastic in the ocean will not affect us, it already does. Indeed, plastic fragments disintegrate into smaller and smaller fragments until they become part of the food chain or become attached to biomass and sink to lower depths.
Meanwhile, the Oceanography team at The Ocean Cleanup has begun to analyse the samples collected during the Mega Expedition, in order to better understand, quantify and map exactly how much plastic is out there. The Foundation will also investigate how to reuse the encountered ocean plastic, in order to deploy the first cleanup array within the next year, and a few years later in the center of the North Pacific Great Garbage Patch.
Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists