A Mission to the Pacific Plastic Patch in the South Pacific Gyre

Capt. Charles Moore, a mariner who has spent years travelling “hundreds of thousands of nautical miles” to measure the impact of plastic waste in the ocean has estimated that a “raft” of plastic debris spanning more than 965,000 square miles (2.5m sq km) is concentrated in a region of the South Pacific.  He was part of the team which discovered the first ocean “garbage patch” in the North Pacific gyre in 1997 and has now turned his attention to the South Pacific gyre.

Moore has just returned from a sampling expedition around Easter Island and Robinson Crusoe Island.

  Capt. Charles Moore has been researching the ocean for plastic since 1997. Source: ALGALITA

Although plastic is known to occur in the Southern Hemisphere gyres, very few scientists have visited the region to collect samples.

Oceanographer Dr Erik van Sebille, from Utrecht University, says the work of Capt Moore and his colleagues will help fill “a massive knowledge gap” in our understanding of ocean plastics.

“Any data we can get our hands on is good data at this point,” he told BBC News.

Capt Moore explained that the space occupied by sub-tropical gyres – areas of the ocean surrounded by circulating ocean currents – is approximately the same size as the entire land mass of the Earth, but they are now being “populated by our trash”.

… “It’s hard not to find plastic in the ocean any more,” Dr van Sebille said. “That’s quite shocking”.

  Our plastic rubbish has floated to islands that are thousands of miles from the nearest human population. Source: SPL

Capt Moore is the founder of Algalita Marine Research, a non-profit organisation aiming to combat the “plastic plague” of garbage floating in the world’s oceans.

For more than 30 years, he has transported scientists to the centre of remote debris patches aboard his research ship, Alguita.

Dragging nets behind the vessel, the crew sieves particles of plastic from the ocean, which are then counted and fed into estimates of global microplastic distribution.

Although scientists agree that plastic pollution is a widespread problem, the exact distribution of these rafts of ocean garbage is still unclear.

“If we don’t understand where the plastic is, then we don’t really understand what harm it does and we can’t really work on solving the problem,” said Dr van Sebille.

Eating rubbish

Capt Moore and his crew hope to address this lack of data through their research trips.

On this latest voyage, Capt Moore and his colleagues are also investigating how plastic in the South Pacific Ocean may be threatening the survival of fish.

Lanternfish, that live in the deep ocean, are an important part of the diet of whales, squid and king penguins and the Algalita team says that plastic ingestion by lanternfish could have a domino effect on the rest of the food chain.

Little lantern fish are smaller than your finger and live so deep that very few people have ever seen one alive.  Every night, all around the world, this false bottom of fish rises up just a bit from the depths of the sea, eats heaps of carbon-rich plankton, and then drops back down again and poops carbon.  In a world in which carbon emissions have become an enormous ecological threat, and in an era when great minds are searching for ways to achieve carbon sequestration to remove it from the atmosphere, it is amazing to consider that these tiny lantern fish sink far more carbon than all of the world’s forests combined.

… Christiana Boerger, a marine biologist in the US Navy, has seen the impact of oceanic garbage patches first hand, aboard the Alugita and she says that some fish species “have more man-made plastic in their stomach than their natural food”.

… Capt Moore says the South Pacific Gyre garbage patch is different from those in the Northern Hemisphere, because most of the litter appears to have come from the fishing industry.

Elsewhere, scientists are shifting their attention away from remote mid-ocean garbage patches to locations closer to home.

“If you think about plastic in terms of its impact, where does it harm marine life?” Dr van Sebille posed.

“Near coastlines is where biology suffers. It’s also where the economy suffers the most.” …

FEATURED IMAGE:  South Pacific garbage patch – Most of the plastic is made up of tiny pieces floating at the surface.  Source: ALGALITA



A mission to the Pacific plastic patch

July 16, 2017


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