July 03, 2012 | 09:34 AMThe development of a new man-made plastic called Parkesine won the bronze medal in The Great London Exposition in 1862. Since then, scientists have created more plastics at an ever-increasing pace. It's no wonder that more than a hundred types of plastics are littering our oceans and gathering into great garbage patches and swirls. Giant gyres of garbage floating beneath the surface, undetectable by satellite images, are quietly choking fish while altering the the ocean's ecology.
In May an expedition of paying scientists, educators, and environmental activists left Majuro in Kwajalein aboard Pangea's Sea Dragon heading for the Western Pacific Garbage Patch (WPGP) and, eventually, Tokyo. From there, a new crew will join the boat for a return trip to Maui.
The journey is a collaboration between Algalita Marine Research Institute, 5 Gyres Institute and Pangea Exploration, all of which want people to see the extent of ocean pollution. Trilogy Excursion's own Cynthia Matzke joined the crew to gain insight and information on the severity of the plastic pollution and immediately share findings in Japan, Korea and Hawaii.
"I brought three cameras with housings and am ready to splash in and to document it–in photos and video–to bring the images and message back to land," says Matzke. "The point is to move peoples' hearts, to move away from plastics and our disposable lifestyle. The five gyres cannot be magically cleaned up with a giant aqua-Hoover as one might imagine. It's unfortunately too late for that end-of-pipe dream. Plastic is far more formidable than we might imagine. It doesn't bob around at the surface in an orderly fashion. It's ever-shrinking bits release toxins and grow algae to become deadly fish nibblets. It permeates the water column like confetti sprinkling a Doomsday parade."
The Pangea's Sea Dragon is a pay-for-play kind of ocean exploration, booking teams of "journalists, marine biologists, filmmakers, divers, photographers, educators, sailors, anthropologists, conservationists and bloggers" on their trips that include meals and gear. They are currently recruiting their next trip to Kiribati for about $5,000 per passenger.
Researchers aboard the Sea Dragon's Garbage Patch crossing were concerned with four things: how fast the plastics are spinning in the gyre; the rate in which it is breaking down; the possibility that invasive species are traveling aboard the debris; and how much marine life actually lives in the gyre.
Matzke says samples were taken in a handful of ways, a slow quantified manta trawl every 50 miles, a fast trawl and via a scoop while sailing. Only rarely did they stop to pick up debris.
"If we tried to stop every time we saw sizable chunks to gather them, we would still be out there," she said. "You learn to pick your trash wisely in the gyre. I was able to get in the water only one time: to film the initial find of our first net ball and see who and what was swimming around under and with it. There were a couple larger fish (probably mahi) that bolted as soon as I splashed in. Other fish such as rainbow runners, chubs and sergeant majors were also swimming with the net ball.
"Creatures like that don't belong in the pelagic zone, and it is actually the hitch hiking critters that has me even more concerned for Hawaii than the debris itself," she continued. "Our fragile ecosystem is unique in that 25 percent of fish species here are endemic. That makes us highly vulnerable to invasive species. We also found small and tiny organism at home on the debris, from frog fish to firey bristle worms and barnacles. Many other microscopic organisms were present as well–too many creatures to name."
Matzke attended the Symposium on Plastic Pollution in the Marine Environment at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. There, scientists, students, citizens and even plastic producers came together over the issue. She said an interesting discussion was started between a Japanese plastics industry executive who stated that that most of the trash littering the beaches on a normal basis (not including the tsunami debris) was from other countries that washed up there, and that Japan dealt efficiently with all of its debris. He was quickly but very politely countered by an older local woman who cleans up beaches regularly in her seaside village several hours away. She stated that much of the plastic debris that washes up there comes from Japan.
"I will say that where the world has a plastic problem, Japan and other parts of Asia seem to have an addiction," says Matzke. "But incredibly, there was no trash littering the streets in Japan, and I saw people making every effort to deal with their trash, even though trash cans in public places were not easy to find. It costs money to throw your trash away there–a lesson we learned fast as we arrived on the docks in Japan with debris we had found at sea and discovered it would cost us dearly to dispose of it."
On June 1, the Sea Dragon began its return to Hawaii with a new crew. The ship is expected to make land fall in Maui this week. The steel-hulled, 72-foot vessel sailed an eastern route to venture through and record tsunami debris. From the ship's blog at the Algalita Institute website, Katie Transue posted a week ago about a small skiff lost 1500 miles of the coast of Japan at 29°11.9 North-170°35.2 East:
"We've found a boat presumably ripped from its mooring when the wave hit. Everyday now, we're spotting something—a spare tire from a light truck, a piece of traditional Japanese flooring, and several other objects that may or may not be from the tsunami," Transue wrote. "We dive on her to survey what we can't see beneath. In the water, there is little growth on the boat—just a few barnacles, maybe five or so. Tucked in the inside are probably 50 or 60 fish; Triggers, Rainbow Runners and some species that look clearly out of place—tropical coral dwelling fish. As we approach they scatter, then return. What's now a wreck of a boat has become a floating reef system for this crowd."
To help, the 5 Gyres Institute is asking people to make the plastic promise, reducing your plastic use in the following five ways: bring your own water bottle, mug, utensils and reusable bag; say 'No' to plastic straws; buy what's in the least amount of plastic packaging; pick up five pieces of plastic litter; and ask family, businesses and co-workers to do the same.
As the Sea Dragon approaches Hawaii, Matzke is also organizing a Blue'aina cleanup at Lahaina Harbor with Trilogy as a welcoming event for the crew. Two Trilogy boats will be on hand at 8:30am on Saturday for first-come, first-served passengers to go out and clean the reef ($20 donation).
Bring your own snorkel gear, towel and mesh bag for picking up rubbish. Then at 11am the clean-up at the Lahaina Harbor begins, with participants asked to bring their own bags. At noon, some of the Sea Dragon crew will be available to talk about their crossing. For more info, see their Facebook page at facebook.com/blueaina.
"While the earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami debris topic is gaining momentum in the media, the truth is that the plastic pollution that slips every day unnoticed from shores into the sea and collects in the gyres is the real issue we need to address," says Matzke. "There are many groups on the island dealing with the issue of marine debris in a myriad of ways–finding one is the easy part, making the commitment to change your plastic use is just as important but requires diligence. It's time to wrap our heads and hands around this issue and face the plastic pollution that arrives every day on the very waves that lap our shores."
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