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More plastic than plankton in the ocean?

More plastic than plankton in the ocean?

View from the NOAA Pacific Grove lab
View from the NOAA Pacific Grove lab

Last week, while thunder and lightning storms crackled and boomed over the eastern regions of San Francisco Bay, a group of us from the Exploratorium escaped to sunny Pacific Grove for a visit to the NOAA labs down there. Nestled between the ocean and the famed Pebble Beach golf course, the Pacific Fisheries Environmental Lab specializes in data analysis and visualization with a focus on climate and marine fisheries. We had some fascinating discussions about upwelling, a seasonal event along the Pacific Coast that starts when strong spring winds blow surface waters out to sea. Those waters are replaced with colder, nutrient rich water from the depths which trigger a bloom in microscopic marine plants, called phytoplankton, which feed tiny animals called zooplankton, which in turn nourish fish and birds that time their reproduction to this spring-time oceanic bounty.

In a future post, I’ll write more about upwelling and how it might be changing under a warming world. Today I’m focused on an entirely different threat to ocean health: plastic trash that makes its way from land to sea in seemingly overwhelming abundance. At the NOAA lab, we met an evangelist for this environmental issue, Captain Charles Moore who discovered firsthand what became knows as the “great Pacific garbage patch” on a yacht race from Hawaii to mainland U.S. in 1997. The sight of “shampoo caps and soap bottles and plastic bags and fishing floats as far as I could see” stunned Capt. Moore and compelled him to focus his marine research foundation Algalita on bringing public and scientific awareness to this looming environmental and ecological disaster.

Unlike paper and other biodegradable packaging, discarded plastic persists in marine and aquatic environments, collecting along beaches and in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. In some regions of the world, including the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, plastic is swept into circular currents called gyres where the trash swirls in giant eddies twice the size of Texas.

NOAA map of the Pacific Grye, a region of the subtropical Pacific where marine debris accumulates.
NOAA map of the Pacific Grye, a region of the subtropical Pacific where marine debris accumulates.

Research by the Algalita Foundation has documented that in the Pacific gyre, plastic refuse can outweigh marine plankton by a factor of six to one. Ingested by marine creatures and birds, this garbage accumulates in body tissues although scientists don’t really know whether or how it affects their biology–a possible research agenda for NOAA’s Office of Marine Debris.

A self-described pessimist (he doesn’t say cleaning up this mess is impossible but does say it’s “really, really, really hard...”) CAPT Moore gave a recent TED talk that’s sobering but well worth watching. But not all the news is hopeless: there’s a multi-institutional program in Hawaii that collects plastic waste and transports it to a power plants that burns the waste for energy production. Another cool idea we heard yesterday: enlist the efforts of the Bering Sea crab fishermen to collect abandoned fishing nets and other large debris during their off season. From deadliest catch to yuckiest catch?? Might make a good reality show…what new disgusting thing will they pull out of the water this week?

But as CAPT. Moore points out we should be finding ways to cut this off at the source. Even though I recycle, I keep finding more reasons to reconsider every product I buy packaged in plastic. In celebration of World Ocean Day, today and for the rest of this week, I’m going to avoid buying or throwing away anything made of plastic.