Algalita Marine Research Blog

Disappearing ocean plastics is nothing to celebrate

Posted by: Sarah Mosko

Plastics in the food chain

Plastics in the food chain

You’d think that finding far less plastic pollution on the ocean’s surface than scientists expected would be something to cheer about. The reality, however, is that this is likely bad news, for both the ocean food web and humans eating at the top. Ingestion of tiny plastic debris by sea creatures likely explains the plastics’ disappearance and exposes a worrisome entry point for risky chemicals into the food web.

Except for a transient slowdown during the recent economic recession, global plastics consumption has risen steadily since plastic materials were introduced in the 1950s and subsequently incorporated into nearly every facet of modern life. Annual global consumption is already about 300 million tons with no foreseeable leveling off as markets expand in the Asia-Pacific region and new applications are conceived every day.

Land-based sources are responsible for the lion’s share of plastic waste entering the oceans: littering, wind-blown trash escaping from trash cans and landfills, and storm drain runoff when the capacity of water treatment plants is exceeded. Furthermore, recent studies reveal an alarming worldwide marine buildup of microplastics (defined as a millimeter or less) from two other previously unrecognized sources. Spherical plastic microbeads, no more than a half millimeter, are manufactured into skin care products and designed to be washed down the drain but escape water treatment plants not equipped to capture them. Plastic microfibers from laundering polyester fabrics find their way to the ocean via the same route.

Given that plastics do not biodegrade within any meaningful human time-scale, it’s been assumed that the quantity of plastic pollution measured over time on the surface waters of the ocean will mirror global plastics production and hence should be rising. However, regional sampling over time indicates that plastic debris in surface waters has been rather static since the 1980s.

In a report just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international cadre of scientists calculated that the total load of plastic debris on the surface of the world’s oceans should weigh roughly a million tons, based on a combination of production figures since the 1970s, estimates of the fraction of plastics released into coastal waters that reach open ocean, and the 50 percent of plastics known to be buoyant. However, extrapolating from actual trawl samples taken worldwide during a recent global circumnavigation study (Malaspina 2010 expedition), the scientists discovered that the total weight of surface water plastics is only somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 tons. This means that only a tiny fraction (1-4 percent) of buoyant plastics at sea is account for.

Insight into where the rest might have gone emerged from an analysis of the size distribution of the remaining floating debris. From previous research it was already known that plastic fragments no bigger than a half centimeter outnumber larger debris on the ocean’s surface, a phenomenon attributed to the fact that weathering continually breaks up plastics into ever smaller fragments. Thus the scientists were surprised to find a striking paucity of debris in the one millimeter and smaller size range, the opposite of what would be expected from progressive fragmentation. This indicates that microplastics are being selectively removed from the surface.

The scientists posit that zooplankton-eating fish likely account for the loss in surface microplastics. The missing microplastics are the same size as zooplankton, thus easily mistaken for food. Furthermore, zooplankton eaters that live deep in the ocean rise to the surface at night to feed. This explanation is supported by fact that plastic debris found in the stomachs of the fish that live off zooplankton are the same size as the missing surface debris, and the same size plastics are also commonly found in the stomachs of larger fish that feed on the plankton eaters.

The number of marine wildlife species known to ingest plastic waste is already in the hundreds. In recent decades, disturbing autopsy images have surfaced in larger creatures – like whales, dolphins, turtles, fish and seabirds – illustrating stomach/intestinal blockage or perforation from ingesting often recognizable plastic items such as plastic bags, fishing line and bottle caps. However, a spate of recent studies has also documented ingestion of microplastics in the millimeter and micrometer range by smaller sea life at lower tiers throughout the ocean food web, everything from zooplankton at the web’s very base to sandworms, barnacles and small crustaceans.

One recent study finding that micrometer-sized microplastics ingested by the tiniest zooplankton show up rapidly in the intestines of zooplankton one step up the food chain underscores the potential for upward transfer of plastic debris from one tier to the next. Similarly, transfer to shore crabs from eating common mussels which fed on microplastics is also known to occur.

Humans’ selfish fears about the take up of plastic materials throughout the food web stem largely from potential chemical threats which could be delivered up the chain. Hazardous chemicals are manufactured into various plastics, like known endocrine disruptors (e.g. phthalate plasticizers and bisphenol-A) or carcinogens (e.g. vinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants). Also, plastics are oily materials and, as such, concentrate oily contaminants from the surrounding seawater, like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and the breakdown products of the banned pesticide DDT. Researchers have shown that toxic chemicals within or on the surface of ingested plastic debris can transfer to the tissues of wildlife (e.g. seabirds), and the accumulation and even bio-magnification in wildlife as you go up the food chain when toxins are not readily metabolized is likely the greatest threat to humans.

A study finding microplastics in the soft tissues of oysters and mussels cultured specifically for human consumption, just published in the journal Environmental Pollution, is also unwelcome news for humans. The authors estimated that a shellfish lover could already be ingesting over 10,000 microplastic particles in a year.

Add to this recent laboratory evidence of tangible health consequences of ingesting chemicals associated with marine plastics. For example, altered expression of genes signaling endocrine system disruption was recently documented in both male and female fish after eating a diet containing small amounts of microplastics which had been exposed for a few months first to seawater in the San Diego Bay.

Microplastics are generally believed to represent a greater chemical threat than macroplastics because the larger relative surface area of smaller debris allows for more adsorption of toxins from seawater. Thus far, scientists have focused primarily on plastics in the visible millimeter plus size range. They express worry, however, that as plastics fragment further into the micrometer and even the nanometer range (100 times smaller than the width of a human hair), the risks to the food web could multiply, not just because of increasing surface area but also because the tinier the debris the more diverse the wildlife able to ingest it.

Scientists have not ruled out that other factors might also contribute to the disappearance of surface water microplastics, but the evidence thus far points to ingestion as the main one. For instance, plastic debris will sink once biofouling (colonization by micro-organisms) causes it to lose buoyancy, but field experiments show that defouling occurs rapidly after the debris is submerged, allowing it to float back to the surface.

Some historians already refer to the current era as The Age of Plastics. Just as runaway global warming looms as an unexpected consequence of the wanton burning of fossil fuels, the poisoning of the ocean food web could be the lasting legacy of the plastics era. Non-profit marine protection organizations, like the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, the Santa Monica-based 5 Gyres Institute and the Ocean Conservancy in Washing, D.C., are working to draw attention to the urgent need to stem the flow of further plastic debris into the oceans. There is general agreement that schemes to clean up plastic debris out in the mid-ocean are impractical, no matter how well-intended, as any after-the-fact approach is akin to trying to push back against water blasting from a fire hose. Better to turn off the deluge at the nozzle.

To fully address the global problem of plastic ocean pollution, the plastics industry must ultimately reformulate its products, though this will obviously take time. In the interim, we already know two relevant facts, that rivers are a major source of plastic waste entering the oceans and that a sizeable fraction of plastic debris at sea is eventually deposited on shorelines. Thus, directing resources now to both developing devices to capture waste in rivers before it reaches open ocean and cleaning up waste littering the shorelines makes the best sense.

Consumers can also do their part now through simple behavior changes, like using reusable shopping bags and opting for products packaged in non-plastic alternatives, like glass or paper. And of course everyone is welcome to pitch in on the annual International Coastal Cleanup. Last year, over 12 million pounds of waste were picked up by nearly 650,000 volunteers in 92 countries.

The next International Coastal Cleanup day is Sept. 20. Contact the Ocean Conservancy to locate a beach cleanup in your area.

Date Posted: August 21, 2014 @ 11:52 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

FINAL BLOG FROM THE CREW

Posted by: Captain Charles Moore

Final Blog: at anchor off Arch Point, Santa Barbara Island
Captain Charles Moore
Gyre Voyage 2014 comes to a close

Listen to the crew. They have now experienced the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” first hand, and it has changed them. I have been there ten times over the last 15 years. It has gotten much, much worse. I was shocked to see what was an uncommon occurrence during my first voyages—an area of concentrated floating plastic visible to the naked eye—now persist over hundreds of miles, with these areas being the rule, not the exception. Some of this floating plastic was tsunami related, but much was Chinese, not Japanese. Asia will continue to adopt the throwaway plastic lifestyle. People will continue to live in the coastal zone. Plastic will continue to dominate the consumer, construction and agricultural marketplace. Aquaculture, that uses huge amounts of plastic infrastructure, will increase. The world will continue to experience great tsunamis, storms and other disasters, both natural and unnatural, which will wash tons of plastic into the sea. Recycling will lag far behind innovation of new, difficult to recycle plastics. Progress toward benign plastics will be slow. The Garbage Patches will grow. How much the one we study has grown will be my work for the next couple of years. Algalita Marine Research and Education will continue to raise the issue of marine plastic pollution, and make accurate information available, so that a critical mass of concerned individuals can cooperate and force the changes needed to mitigate this growing crisis in our precious ocean.

Jesus Amador Reyes

For me this research voyage has truly left me speechless; I know it may sound cliché or even somewhat like I’m trying to be poetic but I’m not. When it comes to the purpose of the voyage for me, it was to collect blood samples to analyze how the debris and the chemicals associated with the debris might affect fish within and out of the gyre. How we sampled (trawling, hand netting, purse seine, hook and line or just finding them in plastic debris) and how many we got by these methods I was; shocked, amazed, pumped-up, excited, awestruck….the list goes on and one. Really there is no one way to describe how the sampling has gone from a personal scientific point of view. I was able to collect samples from a species (myctophids) which by sheer numbers make up more than half of all fish in the world. Sampled what look like juvenile sunfish (potentially); a species so rare I don’t know if anyone has blood and tissue samples analyzed for this species. Then there are the Mahi mahi and albacore samples which bring to light the ultimate message. Too many times people hear about the plastic/debris in the ocean and think large pieces and a “dirty” place. But the reason I’m here is to determine to what extent this debris impacts the fish. Endocrine systems are so vital to the overall HEALTH of ANY organism (from fish to humans). So although these fish may not have high levels of a single contaminant, if their system is being disrupted they are not healthy. If you alter an organism’s growth, stress, developmental, reproductive or immune system there is no way they can be healthy. And there it is……..ultimately people have heard this before; we are tied to all environments. If we contaminate a field, would anyone eat anything grown in that field? If livestock was contaminated, would anyone eat that meat? ….so everything links back to humans and human health. It’s important to protect all our environments because it is the right thing to do, but also because ultimately we are protecting ourselves. To think of how much debris is out here, seeing copious amounts of it float by, seeing copious amounts collected in our trawls and to think we only covered a tiny micro fraction of the Pacific Ocean. Then to think of all the potential chemicals that we have released into our oceans and those that are leaching out of all those debris products making it a chemical soup more than the beautiful pristine environment that it should be……..well……..I’m speechless.
Lorena M. Rios Mendoza

I am not sure how to start this paragraph….with good or bad news…I kept in my memory the beautiful sunset on the Pacific Ocean, these red and orange colors mixed with the blue of the ocean and white sky from my gyre voyage in 2007. This time the weather was not cooperative to enjoy the first week on the Pacific Ocean. The ocean waters were moving and moving, nevertheless, the ocean is so magnificent and it is sad to see how humans are destroying this wonderful habitat.

This is my second time on the North Pacific Gyre, and I never thought I would see and find all the plastic that we found every single day in the Gyre. In 2007, I was impacted with the amount of plastic that we collected on the manta trawls, but this time the manta trawls collected macro plastics too. After the results from chemical analysis on the 2007 samples, which showed the plastic debris can concentrate, and transport toxic chemicals, I decided to study plastic debris pollution in the oceans and the Great Lakes. The main risk with the synthetic plastic debris is that they can easily be confused with natural food because the small sizes and its density, lower than the seawater. However, we can keep in mind that not all the synthetic plastics float in the ocean, there are more kinds of plastics that sink. Then we have a double problem, in the surface and in the sediments at the bottom of the ocean.

The oceans are considered as a buffer for the contamination, but we do not know how long this buffer can resist the abuse of human pollution. It is important that young people know about this huge problem and help to stop the plastic pollution and find new products that substitute for the non –biodegradable synthetic plastic.

This voyage was so educational for me, I learned how to take blood samples from fish, the names of different organisms that were caught with the manta trawls, and I was so happy cooking with Dale Selvam, el Brujo, all the different dishes that he was teaching me. I jumped in the ocean one time during the day and the night, this was great. In general, I can tell you that this trip was loaded with wonderful and sad experience at the same time.

Cynthia Matzke

This voyage was an amazing opportunity to not just study, but to experience the
unique ecosystem of the Eastern Pacific Gyre in a new way – a slow and
methodical way, with enough time for exploration as well as deep contemplation.
My professional goals were to use science to help quantify the extent of the
plastic pollution issue, and to document and record our findings to share with
other researches and the public. As an ocean science communicator and
community activist, I know together we can pinpoint solutions to this controllable
problem and reign in consumerism to tame the plastic beast.

It has been a pleasure to see my crew mates diligently working their disciplines,
and to be part of the team work needed for us to deploy, retrieve and process the
numerous trawl samples we gathered. I was able to get some great specimens
and data for my Scripps labs as well, and I am thankful my Geiger counter only
hit above 100 once.

But in many ways, the work now is just beginning for me on the personal level.
The issue is so easy for people to ignore and just carry on with life as usual, I felt
the need to do something radical to wake them, and myself, out of complacency.
This is undoubtedly the most extreme thing I have done, in a life already
brimming with travel and adventure. But as challenging as it was, it was
worthwhile on many levels, and I hope that the data gathered, images captured,
and the experiences shared with many may foster positive momentum and
continued collaboration.

DEDICATION AND GETTING THE JOB DONE UNTIL THE END.
CAPTAIN DALE SELVAM.

A year of preparation for this six week Pacific Gyre voyage. Testing new equipment, trawls, nets ….refurbishing old equipment, manta, cameras. Two intense months, 12 hours a day, six days a week in the boatyard, reinforcing nacelles and propeller cages installed,1000’s of $$$$$. Miles of testing, miles of lists, back in the boatyard, more $$$$$. Fundraising, meetings, hours of computer work, late into the night on the phone with service techs. More lists…….All systems on Research Vessel Alguita checked over, engines refurbished, pumps serviced, new sails installed, tested. Last minute major electrical system upgrades, more $$$$$. Weeks to go turned to days then last spares and stores aboard. Moorings cast off and into the gyre. Last minute crew changes means everybody multi tasking to the max, diving, drone operating, dinghy, sailing, cooking, wrenching ,filming, it’s good to be busy and use new skills and hone old ones. After 30,000 miles, 4 years and hundreds of trawls searching for plastic on another vessel, arriving in Captain Moore’s Plastic Paradise it was shocking to encounter an actual island of plastic, see more plastic in every sample than ever before, continuous debris floating past the boat, swimming in cesspools of new and old trash. Mind-blowing!! We have filmed from the air with the drone, underwater, hours of film, thousands of photos. Now begins the mammoth task of stitching all this together and getting the visual word out there. The days seemed endless, the weeks longer but now we count down the hours until we head back and the voyage ends. The work begins again. It seems like the end but the end is never near. Samples need to be analyzed, Alguita needs a spring clean. Trash is still pouring into our oceans. Captain Moore will have an endless string of interviews; television, radio, magazines, his tireless dedication is incredible, an example to follow, the end will never be reached, we must all fight this plastic problem everyday, endlessly, tirelessly, every time you shop, think about what you need, REALLY. Thanks to COORC, Klean Kanteen ,Reef Clothing, individual donors, volunteers , without your help these important missions would never happen and these important messages would not get out there.
So now, let’s roll our sleeves up and do what we can as individuals and groups working to clean up this mess we are all responsible for.

Local Beach-Global Garbage

Date Posted: August 15, 2014 @ 7:26 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

COMING TO AN END

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday Coordinates: 35.22.954 120.58.217

This is my final blog from the Algalita 2014 Expedition to the Eastern Pacific Gyre. Our mission – to deploy of team of scientists to research and document the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and to live for a month in the accumulation zone is complete. We surveyed it from the air, by dinghy, trawled the surface, trawled at 10 meters, dissected its fish, sampled, filtered, and drank its waters, dived in and filmed it by day and by night, and met it’s inhabitants. It’s strange beauty only outdone by the sadness one can’t help but feel when we experience the pollution firsthand, and bear witness to the trash and plastic debris left behind in the wake of humankind. From here we begin analyzing the data, and the larger job of sharing the findings with humanity to raise awareness begins.

dolphinBy 7 am the sun was bright enough reveal our first landfall, the central California coastline. It was an exceptionally ‘whaley’ kind of a day, as I spotted a pod of transient orca (Orcinus orca) logging at the surface, which then started making their way south. Having studied the resident orcas of the San Juan Islands, I could identify this small group of about 8 transients as the marine mammal hunters that got them the nickname “killer whales” in the first place (name derived from ‘killers of the whales’ as sometimes they eat just the tongue out of other whales like grays or humbacks). This was mammal heaven, as on the way in to refuel in Morro Bay we saw numerous sea lions, two humpback whales, dolphins, and even a sea otter. Yes, orcas have been known to nibble the occasional otter in the Aleutian Islands, but with that thick fur one would think they would need to be seriously hungry to wrangle that pelt for so little meat. The area around Morro Bay provides a wide range of dietary options for these omega predators.

Orcas are fascinating, all lumped into same species but with three very different groups: the residents (salmon eaters), the transients (mammal munchers) and offshore (shark snackers). Think of them almost as unique tribes, as they have very organized matrilineal societies, distinct feeding techniques/prey items (which leads to specialized physiology), as well as different vocalizations which build complex languages. It is their adaptability and ability to work together, to fill specific biological niches that make them masters of their dominion – whether subtropical or icy seas. Oh, and their massive brains with highly developed cerebral cortexes – and convulsions and gray matter that exceed our own – further demonstrate their cognitive prowess.

On this trip we have witnessed many sad, strange and wonderful sights, but personally I find the beaked whale sightings the most fascinating and inspiring. The experts believe we may have captured some rare Ginkgo-toothed beaked whales, or Ginkgo’s for short. They are difficult to study as they reside in the deep-sea habitat and so very little is known about their lives, although several dead specimens have been photographed. They are found and were named in Japan, derived from an erupting tooth on the bottom jaw of males, whose shape resembles the leaf of the gingko tree. While not uncommon in Taiwan, to document the same pod out in the gyre on two separate occasions may suggest expansion of the range, but definitely points to the fact that this is a highly understudied area, for obvious reasons.

fossilInterestingly, the ginkgo tree is somewhat of an anomaly itself. It’s a highly unusual non-flowering plant, a living fossil whose relatives date back 270 million years. Yet all predecessors are extinct, save the ginkgo biloba tree, which is the longest living tree species in the world, some living a thousand years! Using ginkgo herb for bronchial maladies such as asthma was described in 2600 BC, but today is often taken to stimulate memory. In Hiroshima Japan, there are 6 ginkgo trees that survived the atomic bomb, rejuvenated, and still thrive today. There they have come to represent not only longevity, but perseverance, and are known as “bearers of hope” by the locals.

As I have worked on the marine debris issue for over 20 years and completed three journeys across gyres, in addition to countless beach and reef cleanups, this issue can weigh heavily on the heart. Considering many of the other ocean threats like climate change and related ocean acidification that are impossible to halt in their tracks, the plastics issue is within the realm of control. Much of what is happening out here in the deep blue can be altered with a relatively simple change in behavior to reduce packaging and buy less disposable toxic junk. Not a lot to ask, as there are ‘living fossils’ out here in the ocean that deserve to live on. At least to me, knowing that we witnessed a rare ginkgo’s beaked whale that still manages to exist in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch symbolizes hope that we can change, and has given me will to persevere and keep up the fight. Their name rings true, as ginkgo’s beaked whales are indeed “bearers of hope” and can help us remember the importance of changing our destructive consumption habits.

Tonight I sign off as author, and tomorrow Captain Charles Moore will write the final blog in the series for this expedition. For those in the Southern California area that would like to come welcome the boat and meet the Captain and crew, we will arrive this Friday, August 15th, at 4 pm into Alamitos Bay Landing. Thanks for following our gyre journey, and we hope you’ll bring your reusable cup and come raise a glass of cheer with us. Remember, we need all hands on deck to tackle the plastic pollution problem, there’s so much we can do.

Date Posted: August 13, 2014 @ 11:53 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

EASTWARD TOWARD LAND

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday Coordinates: 35.45.878 123.23.745

dolphinBy morning of day 44, our crew of six had traveled over 3000 nautical miles in the 50’ catamaran Alguita. The most noteworthy occurrence today as we traversed the waters above the Davidson Seamount was the sighting of a common dolphin so light in color, it appeared to be almost albino. Alas, the white whale exists! But the camera was not functioning properly (as often happens with such rare sightings) so this single shot is the best we could capture. We also saw large whales in the distance (perhaps the mighty blues), Pacific white-sided dolphin, black-footed albatross, phalaropes, storm-petrels, and a pair of sea lions.

Our day was spent heading eastward toward land, taking advantage of any wind that we could find and motoring the rest of the way. This is a perfect chance to answer some of the questions we have received from folks following the journey.

Rick Long from Maui: If many environmental campaigns use a glamour species to attract followers (rather than talk habitats or eco-systems), can we (should we) make the Lanternfish our new icon?

lanternIt’s a fine idea, as they are such an important base food in the deep water ecosystem, and they make up about half of the fish biomass in the Deep Scattering Layer. However many people rally around “charismatic megafauna” (ie cute things with a high “cuddle factor”) and the lanternfish may, at first glance, lack that certain something special. Their big eyes are quite fetching, though. But we know it’s what’s inside that counts – and many are ingesting plastics. So if artists will share their talents, I believe it’s possible and probable to create great images that can move people into action.

Here ye, here ye: Calling all artists! A contest to draw/paint/sculpt the lovable myctophids (lanternfish) begins!

Q. What’s a poor sea turtle to do with all of the plastic and other marine debris?

We hope their consumption of it doesn’t lead to the extinction of any turtle species, as plastic bags mimic an open ocean food source – jellies. With all the work being done to protect their nesting sites, we should also focus on and not neglect their nursery – the gyre.

Rick Long from Maui: If many environmental campaigns use a glamour species to attract followers (rather than talk habitats or eco-systems), can we (should we) make the Lanternfish our new icon?

It’s a fine idea, as they are such an important base food in the deep water ecosystem, and they make up about half of the fish biomass in the Deep Scattering Layer. However many people rally around “charismatic megafauna” (ie cute things with a high “cuddle factor”) and the lanternfish may, at first glance, lack that certain something special. Their big eyes are quite fetching, though. But we know it’s what’s inside that counts – and many are ingesting plastics. So if artists will share their talents, I believe it’s possible and probable for great images that can move people into action.

Here ye, here ye: Calling all artists! A contest to draw/paint/sculpt the lovable myctophids (lanternfish) begins!

Q. What’s a poor sea turtle to do with all of the plastic and other marine debris?

We hope their consumption of it doesn’t lead to the extinction of the species, as plastic bags mimic their open ocean food source – jellies. With all the work being done to protect their nesting sites, we should also focus on and not neglect their nursery – the gyre.

Scott from Colusa, CA: I’m trying to quantify in my mind the amount of plastic that’s in the area you are testing. 1.Is there enough to recycle or make fuel out of? 2. Is it possible to round up pods of this plastic and transport to shipping routs for the ocean freighter take and make fuel out of?

Captain Charles Moore answers: On this trip, for the first time, I began to think that the answer may be yes, there is enough larger debris to collect and convert to fuel. There are many problems to be overcome to do this, such as removing barnacles and other sea life, and the return would be extremely small. It would not pay to do a collection, it could only be done as an extended producer responsibility cost—that is, the manufacturers of the products would have to create the technology and pay for it to be deployed. The cost should not have to be borne by the taxpayer, although the consumer could be asked to pay a percentage of the purchase price of the item.

Paul in Mountain View, California asks: How can young people get involved in the effort to help clean up our oceans?

Captain Charlie responds: Become active at the local level to minimize plastics where more sustainable substitutes exist. Purchase at local farmers markets to avoid food packaging, and lobby politicians to ban bad plastics and their associated chemical pollutants.

Dale says: The children should teach the parents, because the producers produce,products get sold, and the cycle continues.If children teach parents not to consume or buy single use plastic goods or packaging they are teaching the older generation and themselves and their friends as well. Children should say no to plastic toys and the rest – and their parents will catch on eventually.

Jesus adds: I agree with Dale, kids should teach their parents. for many reasons, most of the things parents do is because or for their kids, so really they can change the focus and mindset of a whole family; for instance when kids say “mom we want to go to chuck-e-cheese” more often than not, at some point (whether right away or shortly after) they will go to that establishment. Start by asking parents that everyone should have a personalized water bottle— this minimizes use of plastic bottle products. Kids will learn that to change laws and make change happen will always take time, so if the kids instill a mindset of preservation and conservation when they grow up to run this world they will have those ideals with them.

Also from a marketing standpoint; the largest group in our human population is the base (younger humans) so they can determine what manufacturers and producers do. Kids are very bright and smart and visual; if we increase our education with hands on activities and pictures of how devastating things are; from pictures of trapped animals in plastic, to the polluted beaches around he world and connect it to their favorite animals and how they enjoy going to the beach that will really drive the message home. Then you connect that their everyday actions cause those impacts; not throwing trash in its place, picking products made of more n

Date Posted: August 12, 2014 @ 6:13 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

MORRO BAY BOUND WITH UNCOMMON DOLPHINS

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

36.05.564 125.49.472

The sun came up slowly, the sky cradling our ship in a blanket of deep gray from above while the sea gently rocked us from below. But wait! This was all wrong! Where was the rocking and rolling motion? The strange whine of the cages had ceased, and the smack of waves upon our hull thumping, tribal drum style, no longer echoed though our sleeping chamber and shook the helm. All had been silenced, we were back in the calm.

That patch of great wind that blew us yesterday had abandoned us. Even though several of us got seasick on the way out, it was an expected and even welcomed part of this altogether bizarre journey. Where was the crazy gauntlet of weather and waves we must go through to return us to the world we left behind to “live in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch” almost 6 long weeks ago? Maybe the world we left behind indeed was gone. Certainly my perspective in it has changed and I will see things a bit differently. Shiny perfect-looking plastic that makes our lives so convenient – is a persistent purveyor of toxicity and death to many creatures of the open ocean.

At 10 am when watch shift was upon us, sails luffing, we concluded a course change to Morro Bay was needed as we didn’t have enough wind or fuel to make it to Long Beach. We set the course to 83 degrees and hope to be there by Wednesday to refuel. At approximately 250 miles away from shore it seems wise to be prepared to motor down the coast as needed. The midday trawl taken showed an enormous amount of by the wind sailor jellies, higher than normal, and they recently made news as thousands washed up on California beaches. Both Charlie and Dale wonder how cleanup efforts would be able to separate out the actual life that lives here from the plastic debris – the major drawback to some sea surface cleanup plans that have been proposed.

dolphin 2We dropped the genoa, put up the staysail and started up the starboard engine. Then I heard music to my ears: “Los delfins!” shouted Lorena. Several crew were already up on the bow snapping pictures when I arrived, and it was a beautiful sight to see a small pod of about 20 common dolphins riding our bow. That is relatively small for they are known to feed in large groups of mixed species, but this pod seemed to be traveling.

As far as I’m concerned, common dolphins (Delphinius delphis) got gypped in the name department (as did pseudorcas/false killer whales, but that’s another story) because they really are extraordinarily beautiful and elegant creatures. Elongated dark rostrums (beaks) with black lips, an hourglass streak along their sides, a playful splash of beige in a swoosh that really brings out their eyes – what’s not to love? They’re described as being cosmopolitan, so we must be headed the right direction. I definitely see them as a sign we are out of the gyre transition zone and if the maps are correct, we should be hitting land by Wednesday.

When I worked as an onboard naturalist people often ask why dolphins bow ride. Being a geek, we can consider the Bernouli effect in hydrodynamics, and how the speed/pressure differential is such that they ride this pressure wave and get an effortless burst of speed (similar to plane wing shape providing lift). Behaviorists point out they may assert dominance within their groups this way, in a kind of king-of-the-hill way. This species is gregarious and not only known for riding boat bows for miles, these rascals ride their cousins: gray, fin, humpback and blue whales in the Pacific.

Around here in Southern California they are known to associate with seamounts and other interesting bottom topographical features, and feed nocturnally on creatures associated with the Deep Scattering Layer (DSL). They can hold their breath 8 minutes and reach depths of close to 300 meters. I wonder if they feed upon myctophids (lanternfish) like the spinner dolphins in Hawaii, and what their toxicity levels might be. Larger toothed whales have high concentrations of POP’s (persistent organic pollutants) and heavy metals, so it is common for first borns to die, since this transfer is disproportionately higher to a females first born and subsequently mortality is higher. Since I am ill prepared for this encounter and have no crossbow or biopsy dart in hand (let alone a permit!) to get a small sample to have tested, I instead am content to stare at them and wonder if we are negatively affecting their lives. For the moment at least, we are offering a ride and that seems enough.

Date Posted: August 11, 2014 @ 9:25 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

HOW WE BECAME ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH AND EDUCATION

Posted by: Captain Charles Moore

Noon Position: 36 36.903 N 128 24.432 W

charlieI got the sea anchors stowed and we’ve finally hit good sailing winds and are breezing home toward Long Beach at five to seven knots under main and genoa. During this summer’s voyage to the North Pacific Central Gyre we collected education samples for Katie Allen, Algalita’s wonderful purveyor of educational materials including samples to teachers of today’s youth for them to use in their classrooms. Our education samples are manta trawls taken over a thousand miles of travel in the “Eastern Garbage Patch.” I rinsed several of them from this voyage and transferred them to glass jars of ethyl alcohol. To me, these samples are stunning in their ability to convey the reality of the trashed ocean. Samples of this degree of contamination by plastic evoke the urgent need to do something about the problem in whoever sees them.

SAMPLESBack in 1995, not long after starting Algalita Marine Research Foundation, the Board of Directors thought it wise to hire a consultant to help us position ourselves in the research community and direct us toward funding sources and possible grants. The consultant produced a voluminous report, replete with possibilities. One problem she saw, however, was with our name. It was unclear whether we wanted to fund the research of others, or obtain funding for doing our own research, as the term “foundation,” is normally associated with funding the work of others. As a fledgling organization, with a mission to study, protect and restore the marine environment, we wanted to do both. We did fund some research by others, and then after our second year, facilitated the field work of underfunded scientists by discounting the charter fees for Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita.

Bruce Monroe, an early Advisor to Algalita and then Board Member, encouraged us to make an outline of “Research and Restoration Priorities in the Four ‘Ocean Resource Zones:’ 1) The Inland Watershed Zone, 2) The Enclosed Waters Zone, 3) The Near Shore Ocean Zone, and 4) The Offshore Ocean Zone.” Bruce, a resident of Seal Beach who will be remembered as a fierce defender of the environment, both marine and terrestrial, recently passed away after a long and productive life. In reviewing the document he initiated, I note 35 priorities under the first 3 headings, all close to home as it were–”near shore”–everything from “Treatment and Recycling of Urban Waste Water and Contaminated Sediments,” to “Kelp Forest Restoration,” and “Charged woven wire arrays to precipitate calcium carbonate and form artificial reefs and fill holes in existing reefs.” In category 4, “The Offshore Ocean Zone,” there were only 7 priorities, none of which were related to plastic pollution–although we did obtain “water of extreme purity” from the deep ocean which was very useful to Rich Gossett, the current director of the Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments, and Society (IIRMES) Lab at CSULB, which was used for comparison with coastal samples. Now Rich is helping us look into water samples filtered during this voyage for minute plastics only visible with an electron microscope.

Two decades have passed since our founding, and Algalita has evolved to be the organization that discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” and focuses on “the impact of plastic pollution.” We have found our niche! The current Board decided a name change was in order and at first went with “Algalita Marine Research Institute.” After living with the name for a few months, they realized that we were more than producers of dry scientific reports, we were also leaders in educating the public about the perils of plastic pollution and so we became “Algalita Marine Research and Education,” which more accurately reflects the Algalita “brand.” (I hate that everything these days has to be “branded,” thus assuming the form of a commodity that can be bought and sold) Anyway, we are now officially AMRE on our 20th anniversary.

We are scheduled to arrive in port at Alamitos Bay Landing at 3pm on Friday, August 15, and I look forward to seeing you if you can make ii. I come bearing scientific and education samples from the Eastern Garbage Patch!

Please support our research in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by supporting our Indiegogo Campaign for analysis of our scientific samples. Our 2014 voyage to live for a month and trawl through this new plastic habitat was a success and we discovered an actual plastic island you can walk on. Our field and laboratory research furnishes us with important information about the profound ways vagrant plastics are compromising our precious ocean.

Date Posted: August 10, 2014 @ 5:20 pm Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

SCANNING THE SEA FOR BIRDS AND GLASS BUOYS

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Noon position: N36.48.877 W130.58.408

alguitaWatch schedules got switched up, and I am delighted to be doing the 6 -10 am & pm watches with Laurie, which is great a great opportunity to learn more about her work as a seabird ecologist, and it’s also exciting that our watch is at twilight, so we get to see both sunrise and sunset. Today, even though we were not yet on watch and she was in her bunk sleeping, I was outside staring at the ocean when I saw 2 little birds flying in the distance. I leaned down through her open hatch, so as not wake her if deep in sleep, and whispered “I think there’s two storm petrels out here.” I tracked them around the boat to the port side and grabbed the camera, unsure if she had even heard me, and by the time I got there she was already on the scene, binoculars poised and bird watching in jammies. In under 2 minutes – astounding!

It’s great when instead of just watching, what we’re doing out here turns into seeing. To gain insight and deeper understanding into the debris issue and what to do about it is why we’re out here, so the mental state while ‘on watch’ is always engaged and present, yet at times can be very introspective as well. She is into her birds so her eyes take to the skies, while I scan for distant whale spouts and focus close to our boat for passing debris.

glass buoyMy favorite spot is perched on bow, wind in face like eager car puppy, to view what goes by. Out in the elements, connected to just the water with no human interaction, I search the water for objects, ideas and insights. This morning I saw a glass ball go by – an actual jewel of the sea. Memories flash back of growing up in the Pacific Northwest, our family had a little A-frame beach cottage on Vashon Island. My mother, who owned an art gallery and loved blown glass, had displayed several large blown glass buoys we had collected over years of beach combing. The Japan current carried them with the sea, as my Dad explained, and fishermen use them to keep their nets afloat. On family beach walks we analyzed driftwood’s hidden figures, and searched out glass buoys and other littoral treasures. I was sure if I stared into one of these ‘crystal balls from the ocean’ long and hard enough, one could see the future.

The ones we found were usually in shades of green, as they were commonly blown out of old sake bottles from Japan, and often were marked with a kanji symbol on the sealing buttons. Lorena spotted a rare red one, which are the most expensive to produce since gold is used in the process. Today I saw two light blue of different sizes. We weren’t able stop in time and pick them up, but I did find one small aquamarine one on the trash island. Since they are now replaced with plastic ones, I wonder how long these might have been bobbling around, laden with barnacles. Ah, the nostalgia of what Sylvia Earle referred to in a TED talk as the “Pre-Plasticine Era.”

Since we’re on topic, it should be mentioned that glass buoys were also produced and used in Korea, China and Taiwan (the one I found has no marking on sealing button). You can buy replicas in stores, but out here in the Pacific we’re seeing the real deal. Interestingly, although often credited to the Japanese, they were invented in 1840 in Norway by a merchant named Christopher Faye and were used to float gill nets for the cod fishery.

It’s interesting that we see so very little driftwood out here as well, an observation several of us have mentioned. Historically it was an important and vital part of the ecosystem to have wood and natural debris from land washed out to sea, and form natural rafts. That is how many species arrived in remote places. With so little wood out here and plastic being the new vector, it is a wonder what changes will ensue. Dr. Miriam Goldstein did her PhD from Scripps a few years ago, and looks at how certain species seem to thrive in this new environment of increased habitat. As Charlie boiled it down “we think there will be winners and losers out here. Creatures like halobates (water skimmer insects), barnacles and crabs may be winners, and creatures that filter plankton out of seawater such as salps may be losers,” he explained. For more info, links to Miriam’s scientific papers can be found at: http://miriamgoldstein.info.

By 10 pm we had 5 knots of wind, just enough wind to put up the main sail and screecher, still supplemented by motor power as we continue east toward shore. Captain Charlie will guest blog tomorrow and share info on our return voyage plan as well as the education samples he’s been processing.

Date Posted: August 9, 2014 @ 5:21 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

WILD WEATHER BRINGS WINDLESS DAYS AND WATER BOTTLE BOOM

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday Coordinates: 36.52.676 133.30.349

Another day with very little eastward progress made, and it was all made under engine power by burning our precious fuel remaining instead of the wind we have wished for, that was instead blowing with force over Hawaii. Which got us thinking about burning fossil fuels and subsequent CO2 emmissions, and ultimately the topic of climate change rears it’s ugly head.

The high pressure system that creates the gyre is what is holding us here, and it is what stalled out Captain Charles Moore those many years ago and got his attention as a place where trash is accumulating in the first place. So it’s coming around full circle, or full spiral as the case may be. If we don’t get at least 15 knots of wind soon, we won’t be able to travel the 7 knots an hour needed to get back on schedule. We may have to make the slow slog to Morro Bay to refuel.

Thankfully it seems that Hurricane Iselle didn’t do much damage and warnings have been lifted, and Julio is expected to head north in the state and pose little threat. Precipitation is still a concern as saturated ground could cause flooding or mudslides, however. Several of my friends in Hawaii posted how most of the stores ran out of bottled water quickly. Now I can see that for visitors, there are few choices and they would want to be prepared. Other than Perrier, Vass, and a handful of others, not enough brands sell water in glass containers. Toxic plastic water bottles are hard to avoid, they’re so dang unbreakable, convenient and readily available.

Hawaii News Now via the Internet.  Store shelves dry up and precious water bottles sell out

Hawaii News Now via the Internet. Store shelves dry up and precious water bottles sell out

But residents in whatever state they call home must begin to think about things differently. Great solutions to plastic bottles emerged from the Maui storm. Some folks bought ice, then kept it in sterilized coolers so as to be able to drink it upon melting. Glass jars could be kept in the garage as part of storm prep, and filled part way and frozen, then used as both cold storage and drinking water later as well. These are things we really need to consider, especially considering with climate change upon us, we can expect more severe storms in many regions. “Global Warming” does not mean nice summertime conditions for more areas as one might at first think. In fact many of my classes at Scripps taught us not only about climate change, but how to deal with “Climate Change Deniers” as some people are still confused as to whether to believe it or not. Well the science is in folks, and it is very real, and very upon us.

Tiny bits of plastic, including many water bottle lids we found out here in the gyre on “Plastic Island." Final destination?

Tiny bits of plastic, including many water bottle lids we found out here in the gyre on “Plastic Island.” Final destination?

Last summer I was called upon to submit a report synopsis and letter to Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono, as she was attending a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing. Even the title of the hearing “Climate Change: It’s Happening Now” left no room for debate. I was pleased to be invited to contribute by sharing experiences, reports and pertinent sources, and that her statements reflected the urgency of facing the issue. Remote islands and coastal areas will be majorly affected by both changes in sea level rise and storm surge threats, in addition to the debris problem that plagues Hawaii and many island nations.

Much of the early propaganda questioning it’s validity was paid for by the oil industry themselves, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Numerous credible scientists have repeatedly documented how climate change is already having an effect on weather patterns and negatively impacting communities and industry. Two cheeky non-profits even suggested naming hurricanes after prominent politicians who are climate change deniers, a humorous and poignant way to drive a point home.

These two major storms to threaten Hawaii are significant not only because they stole our wind (!) but because they are indicative of things to come. Hurricane season runs through November 30th, and Julio is the fifth hurricane of the 2014 Eastern North Pacific Season. I read an article today in Maui Feed (http://mauifeed.com/state-of-hawaii/amazed-that-two-hurricanes-are-threatening-hawaii-this-week-get-used-to-it/) that talks about the expected increase in major storms, and also points to a great paper published in Nature called “Climate Change May Increase the Number of Hawaiian Hurricanes.” Another great source is author Dr. Jeff Masters, who used to track hurricanes for NOAA and has this awesome site for information as well:

http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=2749

memeWe hope that tomorrow brings enough wind to blow us back on schedule. But as we slowly make way, and many abandoned water bottles drift by, the reality of today’s events still stings. We are glad that our beloveds in Hawaii are safe and didn’t need to drink all those nasty bottles of water that were purchased and shipped across the very ocean we bob on now. Yet on the flip side of that: people, can we please rethink our insatiable thirst for plastic water here? Alternatives exist – push back plastic and reach for something sustainable. We can prepare for storms and disasters with glass, clearly a better alternative.

Date Posted: August 8, 2014 @ 8:06 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

BREATH OF FRESH AIR

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday Coordinates: 37.01.438 135.21.611

Today we continued slowly chugging our way east to find some wind. While our beloveds in Hawaii ready for the oncoming storms/hurricanes Iselle and Julio following right behind, we were praying for wind. Strangely ironic – that as they are being bombarded, it is quite likely this massive storm system far to the south of us possibly inhaled our ‘exit’ wind to leave the gyre. Again I am struck by the connectivity of all our friends, relatives, and oceanic/atmospheric systems, thousands of miles apart, and the broader implications this has for our little blue marble.

charlieWe are currently over 800 miles off shore, but aiming to make it to Long Beach, CA by August 15th. This would mean approximately 100 miles a day – ambitious but can be done if weather permits. We hope not to face the rough ‘beam reach’ conditions we experienced on the trip up, and instead for a downhill run and following seas. But truth is: there is no telling. The story unfolds by the minute and we simply must be okay with that. Here at the ‘edge’ of the gyre, we still are seeing plenty of plastic and trash in every direction one focuses long enough. While of course we must wait for the data to qualify the increase in plastics, you don’t need a team of analysts to tell you that you’re sailing in an accumulation zone of human created waste, or as I was thinking of calling the chapter in my book “Sailing a Sea of Plastic Debris.”

Since there is a welcome and greeting event being planned for our arrival in 8 days, today Captain Charlie finished doing some preliminary processing of several samples, so the media can take a look. Once a particular sample is pulled and logged, the chemical formalin is added to preserve the creatures, and needs to be neutralized before it can be handled by people. Part of what interests us is the ratio of plankton to plastics, so with them preserved in simple alcohol solution we can get the needed data.

This evening at approximately 10:27 pm, something incredible happened. I felt the most amazing thing hit my cheek…a breeze! We set the sails, and as the charts had predicted, we actually got a little increase in wind to up to 5 knots. The expression “breath of fresh air” took on a whole new meaning. This was wind, light but distinct, and this meant movement, freedom… this meant the doldrums, the gyre, and all that magnificence is behind us. Feeling the breeze kiss my cheek I realized how long it had been. The air was clean thanks to our diatom friends (more on that later – I’m secretly in love with diatoms and have been holding out for the right moment to blog about them) but there was little to no breeze in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Fresh stagnant air, and lots of it. But now the fresh breeze signaled we were indeed crossing into a new zone. A few drops of rain just before midnight solidified that the transition was complete.

As you’ve made it this far in reading, I dare say that you might actually care about the ocean ecosystem and about the trash problem. We’ve been looking for you (!), and hope to gain your participation. When I returned from my first expedition and had lunch with a friend on Maui, I told him about what I saw out there and he was affected. He sees the same thing on the beaches off Kahului, Maui’s little “city.” To my delighted surprise, he wrote this poem:

Haiku “Kahului” by Poet Ken

Plastic waste chokes oceans life
Every cup and tube you use
Your hand at her throat

I will make this promise to our readers: while I am not a poet either, if at least ONE of you out there writes a poem, sonnet, song, haiku… whatever you wish… about your love for the ocean and how plastic debris affects it and us, I will match it. While there are many planktonic organisms that are magnificent, I have secretly loved diatoms for a very long time. After all, they give us oxygen, the breath of life! My love poem to them is long overdue. Please join me in this challenge. What creatures, actions or things will you write about? Pens ready…. now write! Aloha from the borderlands of the gyre.

Date Posted: August 7, 2014 @ 7:57 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

KICKSTARTER QUESTIONS

Posted by: Cynthia Matzke

Midday coordinates: 37.07.115 137.25.614

sunsetAround 2 am with the changing of the watches, Captain Charlie decided that rather than continuing our course north, since we had yet to encounter wind and our fuel is waning, we altered heading for a more southeast direction. He reassured me that even if we encountered no wind and had to motor to our nearest landfall we could make it. Morro Bay was just over 800 miles away. Somewhat reassuring news, considering he continued with the story of the return from the ’97 gyre voyage, where they had almost no wind on the way back, had to get the help of a racing sailboat to deliver some fuel at sea to make it to Catalina Island, where they could refuel again before heading home. So while a visit to beloved Santa Catalina Island is overdue in my book, now is not the preferred time. Onward and southeastward to Long Beach!

This afternoon we tangled our props in debris, and Captain Charlie and Dale spent a considerable amount of time disentangling us, as fine filament line was well wrapped in spite of our protective cages. No small or easy job, especially considering the sea state is at least a 2. Reportedly Dale had to wrap his legs around the shaft and rudder, tank on, to systematically cut the line, hammer it out from under the blades and free us.

Today it was also decided that each day at noon we would do a one mile trawl with the manta, to show the gradient- namely how the plastic pollution thins out as we leave the garbage patch. Which we are still trying to do, in only about 4 knots of wind with 900 miles to go.

Now to answer a few questions submitted by a few of our gracious Kickstarter funders:

David from San Jose asks: How “thick/tall” is the garbage patch in the water? How far down from the surface does the debris float?
Captain Charles Moore responds “We are finding most plastics near the surface. At 10 meters (30 feet) there is much less plastic, but some plastic bags and films were seen deeper than hard plastics.”

Blue shark (Prionace glauca) images taken in Catalina Channel by Cynthia Matzke, 1998.

Blue shark (Prionace glauca) images taken in Catalina Channel by Cynthia Matzke, 1998.

Delphine from Hawaii asks: Have you seen any sharks on your expedition?
Dale Selvam answers: “We were collecting debris using the Drone and Dinghy and I was about to jump in to film debris from below when an 8Foot Blue Shark scraped the side of the dinghy and stared his beady eye at me,his colors were camouflaged perfectly with the blue of the ocean. A privileged and beautiful sight to see.”

More questions welcomed, and can be submitted through Kickstarter, our algalita.org website, or on the COORC.org Facebook page. We love having you interact with us out here. Thanks to all for following us, as well as this issue. Together we are making a difference in this massive plastic pollution problem.

Date Posted: August 6, 2014 @ 7:55 am Comments (0) | Comment Shortcut

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