Southern California environment news and trends

A Japanese debris exploration open to the public

Marcus Eriksen

Debris collected by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation on a trip led by Marcus Eriksen across the North Pacific Gyre. In addition to micro-plastic bits, a toothbrush, two pen caps and a small toy gorilla were collected.

The Japanese earthquake and tsunami resulted in possibly the largest influx of man-made debris into the ocean. Next summer, a small team of scientists — and anyone interested in sailing along — will venture to the North Pacific Gyre to study the distribution of the debris.

The trip is a collaboration between 5 Gyres Institute and Algalita Marine Research Foundations, non-profit organizations working to curb ocean pollution. The two legs of the expedition will sail from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands through the Western Garbage Patch, then from Japan to Hawaii through the debris from the Japanese tsunami.

Gyres are vortexes of wind and waves that spin clockwise and slow in their centers where garbage patches are often located. Marcus Eriksen, executive director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute and leader of the expedition, said they look like vast stretches of blue water with buckets or fishing nets strewn about. Twenty-five percent of the earth's surface are gyres and all of them are polluted with plastic, he said. 

"Cleaning up the sea is extremely impractical," Eriksen said, describing the concentration of pollution as a teaspoon of plastic confetti in a sea the size of a football field.

Researchers are interested in how fast the trash is moving, its abundance and distribution, and how quickly it breaks down. In addition to the scientists on board, the expedition will also collect samples and data for several researchers interested in chemicals absorbed by the plastic. Marine life often grows on large pieces of debris, such as the hull of a boat or an old car, Eriksen said. Researchers will also look at how long it takes for these colonies to develop. 

The group additionally hopes to have a Japanese scientist accompany them on the expedition to return any identifiable items back to the community from which they originated.

Eventually, debris will wash up on shore in Hawaii and on the West Coast, and those communities will want to know how much they can expect so they can prepare to remove it, Eriksen said. The first debris is expected to reach the Midway Islands this winter, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa

Fish often eat plastic floating in the ocean, and toxins in the plastic are absorbed into their bodies as they try to digest their meal. Fisheries in the United States will be concerned about which toxins are being absorbed into the fish, something researchers intend to explore. 

Eriksen said the expedition is open to the public because it brings a diversity of perspectives to the voyage. Educators and artists find creative ways to communicate the group's message that pollution needs to be stopped at its source, he said. The passenger fare helps pay for the voyage to make it possible, rather than grants or other funding sources. Nine seats are available to the public at $13,500 for the first leg of the trip and $15,500 for the second.

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