Fishing for plastic

Pub date April 5, 2011
WriterSarah Phelan
SectionGreen City

GREEN ISSUE For the past two summers, scientists and environmentalists with Project Kaisei, a Sausalito nonprofit focused on increasing public awareness of marine debris, have sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge to survey trash in the North Pacific gyre.

A gyre is a naturally occurring system of rotating currents in the ocean that is normally avoided by sailors because of its light winds. The North Pacific Gyre is the largest of the five major oceanic gyres in the world, and the one with the biggest known accumulation of trash, most of which is plastic. Some folks call this vortex the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But Project Kaisei founder Mary Crowley calls the vortex “the eighth continent” to convey its size and impact.

Now, as Project Kaisei prepares for its 2011 expedition, which will likely take place in June — depending on funding, marine conditions, and equipment collection — team members are taking the next steps in the project’s mission to capture the plastic in the gyre. These steps include testing for efficient ways to clean up trash mid-ocean and exploring if some captured plastic can be turned into liquid fuel to power future clean-ups.

“We’ll be focusing on testing marine debris collection equipment, doing some clean-up, further recording what’s out there, and working with ocean current experts. But we need good sponsorship,” Crowley said. “Down the line, we’re looking to have a recycling plant on deck with smaller vessels feeding it so we can do clean-ups mid-ocean. And we’re going to recycle. It’s not going to end up in a dump with plastic blowing back into the ocean.”

Crowley believes unemployed fishermen should be paid to clean up the gyres. “And we should start in our own towns and states and countries,” she said. “We need to produce a solution locally to take effect globally. Part of the response has to come from multinational corporations that are selling stuff throughout world. It’s shocking to me that 90 percent of our pelagic fish are gone and we’ve killed 50 percent of the corral reefs.”

Project Kaisei’s preparations are taking place in the wake of a tsunami that devastated Japan in March, sucking a big pulse of debris into the ocean and crippling four nuclear reactors that continue to leak radiation into the water, raising fears of damage to sea life.

Experts predict that some of the debris from the tsunami will eventually wash up on beaches in Hawaii and California, but Crowley doubts the state will be affected radiologically. “The majority [of the debris] got whooshed out by the tsunami before the leaks began,” she explained.

She says that at a marine debris conference in Honolulu shortly after the tsunami, attendees expressed concern about “land-sourced” debris — trash that flows into the ocean by way of rivers and streams or is dumped directly into the ocean from ships.

“People said that in recent years there’s also been all this debris from natural disasters, including tsunamis,” Crowley noted. “Well, I see debris from natural disasters as all the more reason to develop effective ways to get trash out of the ocean.”

But Captain Charles Moore, who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994 to restore disappearing kelp forests and wetlands along the California coast, thinks a moratorium on plastic production would make the most sense.

Moore’s focus shifted in 1997, when he encountered trash, mostly plastic, scattered across the North Pacific Gyre, and subsequent studies by his foundation claim that trash outweighs zooplankton in the gyre by a factor of six to one.

“Mary Crowley really wants to go out there with big boats and get big pieces of plastic out,” Moore said. “I’m not really opposed to that, but it’s a lot of time and money that could be spent trying to stop the waste getting there in the first place. It’s like having a leaking faucet and bailing out the sink rather than calling the plumber. The time has come for society to draw a line in the sand and say no more plastic. Our plastic footprint is causing more problems than our carbon footprint.”

Moore believes it’s time to withdraw from globalized production and support locavore and slow-food movements instead. “We send stuff to be produced in the cheapest locations possible, package it in plastic, then send it back here. It’s nuts,” he said.

But Crowley says not all plastic use is bad, even as she advocates for getting larger pieces of plastic out of the water, and supporting companies that use less on no packaging.

“Plastic is an amazing material for construction and railroad ties, decking, and some medical uses,” she said. “It’s just not right material for throw-away items because it lasts for centuries. I subscribe to oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s view that a plastic bottle can last for 500 to 600 years. That’s why it’s important to get out these bigger pieces of plastic. We don’t want them broken down in the belly of a whale or the stomach of an albatross.”

Studies suggest that 100,000 marine mammals — possibly more — along with thousands of sea birds die each year from debris entanglement, and that thousands more marine mammals, sea birds, fish and sea turtles die from ingesting marine debris, including plastic bags, which bear an unfortunate resemblance to jellyfish, once in water.

Crowley recalls how in 2009, when Project Kaisei had 25 people on board, including scientists, sailors, filmmakers, graduate students, and engineers, the team was surprised to find plastic in sampling taken 400 miles off the West Coast.

“We were anticipating clean water,” Crowley said. In the end, the project’s research vessel, the Kaisei, whose name means “ocean star” in Japanese, and the New Horizon, a Scripps Institute vessel that participated in the project’s first mission, found some plastic in every single trawl.

“A lot was smaller microparticulates of plastics and preproduction plastic pellets,” Crowley said, noting that she also saw Clorox bottles, plastic bags, ghost nets, toothbrushes, children’s toys, and plastic chairs floating on, or lurking up to nine feet below the surface of the ocean.

“If you’re in still water, you sometimes see confetti-like pieces of plastic. And if you’re up on the crow’s nest and going two to three knots, you see bigger pieces,” she said.

No one knows exactly how many bits of debris are already floating in the ocean or have been ground up into tiny particles on our beaches. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that, to date, there has not been a comprehensive marine debris abundance assessment for the worlds oceans, or even for a single ocean.

Moores foundation says 80 percent of marine debris comes from land and only 20 percent from marine-related activities like fishing. To Crowleys mind, the main problem is that only 5 percent to 7 percent of plastics are recycled.

“Plastic was invented in the 1880s to replace ivory for pool balls and didn’t proliferate until the last 60 years,” she said. “But even when plastic is dumped into a landfill, it has this insidious way of blowing about and ending up in drains, rivers, and oceans because plastic is a very light, easy material to move around.”

Crowley grew up sailing on Lake Michigan, ran away to sea at age 19, and ended up sailing around the world and founding an international boat chartering business. Somewhere along the line, she says, she started describing the vast, continuous expanse of water that covers 71 percent of the planet and creates most of our air as “the global ocean.”

“It really is all connected,” she said. “The health of the oceanic ecosystem is very important to the health of the planet. There’s a terrible misconception that the oceans are so vast they can be used as a garbage pail.”

When she began to see trash underwater, Crowley realized that future generations wouldn’t be able to enjoy the oceans the way she has. She decided to take action four years ago when she began to see an increase in the garbage covering the North Pacific Gyre.

“I kept seeing the message that there’s a terrible problem, but there’s nothing we can do,” Crowley said, recalling how that messaging and her own sense of urgency prompted her to found Project Kaisei to increase public understanding of what’s in the gyre.

“If you’re in the area for a couple of weeks, you have days when you feel you’re voyaging through a field of scattered garbage,” she said. “And when you look out, you see garbage on the horizon.”