Update from the Algalita Research Team

algalita-plastic-pollution-analysisWe’ve begun analyzing samples collected during Algalita’s 2014 expedition to the Eastern North Pacific Gyre. Our main focus is to investigate the ratio of plankton to plastic in the samples, the key metric in monitoring the magnitude of ocean plastics pollution in the gyre. In addition to collecting surface samples, our crew retrieved samples from approximately 10 meters below the surface using a Tucker trawl.

An interesting aspect of the plastic/plankton ratio in the 10 meter samples is the predominance of tiny monofilament fibers tangled in with the plankton in addition to tiny plastic fragments. The diameter of these microfibers is the same diameter as the feelers of copepods, and appears to aid in the aggregation of planktonic organisms. It may be possible to identify the specific anthropogenic source of the microscopic fibers, which tend to be black but are also clear and colored (red, blue).
The collection of microdebris samples at depth is something new for Algalita’s research surveys in the Eastern Garbage Patch, and the potential implications in terms of marine and human ecosystem impacts are alarming. For example, there is the possibility that the plastic microdebris acts like miniature flotation devices preventing “marine snow” (decaying plankton and other organics) from sinking in the water column as a normal function of the ocean’s biological pump, possibly impacting carbon sequestration and contributing to climate change. My name is Denise, I’m an environmental anthropologist and science communicator working with the Algalita research staff. I think this is one of the most interesting and important areas of research Algalita is pursuing. I’ll be reporting on what we’re finding in the lab in the weeks ahead, so stayed tuned!