Monday, Aug. 24, 2009 | Miriam Goldstein was floating on an inflatable raft in one of the planet’s oldest biological communities, curiously watching gelatinous creatures few humans have ever seen, when she noticed tiny polka dots of plastic bobbing on the ocean surface.
Goldstein was shocked to see firsthand how big pieces of synthetic debris are breaking down and littering the North Pacific Gyre with “micro-plastics” — almost undetectable, confetti-like bits that could end up fouling the entire food chain, from zooplankton to humans.
“So there are all these cool organisms, and they’re underneath this sort of layer of plastics just floating there,” said Goldstein, the chief scientist on a Scripps Institution of Oceanography mission to study the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch that has collected in the gyre, which is about 1,000 miles off the California coast.
“I really didn’t expect it would be that easy to see plastic, in this random bit of ocean somewhere between California and Hawaii.”
Goldstein and her fellow Scripps doctoral students said they experienced one surprise after another during the just completed 20-day cruise to the gyre. They have brought back more than 100 samples that, along with their observations, will lead to a greater understanding of how tons and tons of plastic affect the gyre’s ecosystem, and by extension, the world community.
On a daily basis researchers saw trash — battered bottles and buckets, hard hats and bath toys, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters and derelict fishing gear — whizzing by their research vessel the New Horizon.
“I saw a lot of debris just going by and it reminded me a lot of driving along the freeway in California where there is tons of litter,” said doctoral student Darcy Taniguchi via satellite phone from the ship.
The North Pacific Gyre is an oceanic area roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. Gyres are features of all the world’s oceans, where trade winds drive underwater currents into a slowly spinning vortex. The North Pacific Gyre, however, has accumulated an estimated 3.5 million tons of plastic debris — bottles, bags, and other disposable discards that travel thousands of miles from North America and Asia.
Scientists already know shorebirds are starving to death with stomachs full of plastic, sea turtles are drowning in derelict fishing gear and fish are turning up with plastic bits in their bellies. Other researchers have in previous trips measured more plastic than plankton in the eastern part of the gyre.
The Scripps mission promises to bring greater awareness, and greater scientific muscle, to an issue that smaller research organizations have been studying for a better part of a decade.
The team ended its cruise Friday in Newport, Ore., and members are bringing back to their labs jars and flasks of tiny plastic pieces co-mingling with exotic ocean organisms: Vampire squid, glistening comb jellies, lantern fish, blue amphipods and other marine life not found in coastal zones.
“The most striking thing is the amount of plastic we saw over a very large area,” said Jim Leichter, a professor of biological oceanography at Scripps and faculty advisor on the cruise. “Over an area close to 1,000 kilometers, we found small plastic particles in every single sample.”
The trouble with plastic, it doesn’t biodegrade — although sun and wave action breaks it down into ever-smaller shards, scientists say.
“You might think that is not a big problem but the problem is, it was everywhere,” said Doug Woodring, who was aboard the New Horizon. Woodring is co-founder of the San Francisco-based Project Kaisei, an ocean advocacy group that helped fund the Scripps cruise. “As they get smaller and smaller, they start blending in with potential mistaken food sources for the lower end of the food chain in the ecosystem.”
Scientists are concerned that plastic could be poisoning the tiniest organisms, and making its way to larger mammals. Not only does plastic contain a host of chemicals, it attracts persistent organic pollutants, like dioxin and PCB. So the non-biodegradable pieces could serve as toxic pellets for sea life.
And the bigger debris could act as mini flotillas, transporting invasive species into regions they don’t normally live. That could increase some species and decrease others, lowering biodiversity in the ocean, scientists say.
The Scripps team found barnacles, mussels and crabs attached to various hunks of plastic, from detergent bottles to buoys and other unidentifiable objects.
Charles Moore has been studying garbage in the remote gyre region for 10 years, since he inadvertently sailed into what he calls a “plastic soup” while returning home from Hawaii to Long Beach.
Moore, the sea captain-turned-amateur-oceanographer, first made the public aware of the issue in 1999. He later formed the Algalita Research Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the garbage in the gyre.
“I’m overjoyed because now I don’t have to defend the existence of this phenomenon,” Moore said of the greater attention that the Scripps crew brings to the garbage in the gyre. “They have all the credibility in the world.”
Moore said he recently found plastic pieces inside a popular consumer fish, Mahi Mahi. Although they haven’t yet analyzed the tissue, the crew of the Algalita retrieved plastic film and fragments from the stomachs of three of 15 fish dissected so far.
This is the first direct evidence of plastic in a fish eaten by people, Moore says. But Algalita has found plenty of it in species that are staples for larger predators. Algalita researchers retrieved a whopping 1,391 chards of plastic from the 671 lantern fish it analyzed, with one fish having 84 pieces in its stomach.
Joel Baker, an environmental chemist at the University of Washington, Tacoma, cautions not to draw conclusions from such seemingly alarming statistics.
“You have to look beyond initial response of ‘yuck,’” Baker said. “There’s a certain aesthetic discomfort of collecting these fish out in what you think is a fairly pristine environment. But whether there is actually a toxic mechanism or some direct threat to the health of the fish or the human eating the fish is really an open question.”
Baker says studies have shown organisms like mussels intake micro-plastics from seawater in a lab. But he says there is no science to prove it’s happening in the ocean. The professor says what’s missing is a quantitative understanding of the size and significance of oceanic debris, which he hopes the Scripps group will bring.
Scripps’ Leichter says while it’s too early to know, “there is a significant likelihood” the ocean contamination could be affecting people.
The Ultimate Cleanup
While the Scripps researchers will focus on the affect of the plastic on the ecosystem, the people involved in Project Kaisei are trying to clean it up. They believe large quantities of plastic can be harvested from the sea. The group is currently sailing its own brigantine in the gyre to experiment with capture methods.
“Whether we can get every bottle and tire and every piece of trash out of the ocean, that’s not possible,” said Ryan Kerkey, chief of operations at Project Kaisei. “But everything we can take out is good.”
Project Kaisei is talking with British power company Nextek about converting plastic to diesel fuel. The group also plans to recycle retrieved ghost nets into fashionable clothing in Asia.
Moore finds the idea of cleaning up the gyre outlandish. “All this hype about cleaning up the patch is overblown,” he said, adding that the ocean is huge and doesn’t have fences.
As for the Scripps team, their land-based work is just beginning — sorting through the mixed bounty they brought back from the North Pacific. Several doctoral students say it’s disheartening to find the debris in such a unique ecosystem.
But they caution that individual samples can be deceiving. The science, they insist, must prevail. “One thing we enjoy as scientists, even on a topic such as this, which is kind of depressing, is looking at our data and seeing what it says,” Goldstein said. “So often it is different than what you observe and I think that’s a cool part about the scientific process.”