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Expedition Documents Debris and Pollution

Researchers investigate 2011 tsunami marine debris and effects of pollution on ocean species. “It’s disturbing to see how much plastic and Styrofoam is floating out there.”

July 19, 2012
Trisha Smith , The Maui Weekly

The Pacific Ocean is a vast environment--ideally, a playground for sea stewards and an underwater paradise for healthy and happy sea life.

So to learn that nearly every three minutes crewmembers aboard the recent 2012 Asia Pacific Research Expedition spotted a piece of plastic or flotsam along their journey from Japan is a disturbing and sad truth. Yet, harsh realities such as these revealed by the recent scientific voyage are extremely vital in expanding research and education of marine debris and the global concerns of plastics in our oceans, as well as identifying marine debris swept out to sea by the 2011 tsunami.

The Sea Dragon research vessel recently arrived in Hawai'i, ending its 7,000-mile journey across the Pacific to explore the "Western Pacific Garbage Patch," and the material swept out by the tsunami in the North Pacific Gyre.

Article Photos

Although the Sea Dragon did not arrive on Maui as planned, a debriefing discussion was held on July 8 in Kihei with four of its crewmembers. Stiv Wilson (second from the left) of The 5 Gyres Insitute, the expedition’s communications coordinator, said it’s very difficult to determine if what they found is from the tsunami, as much of the items discovered were global brands of plastic bottles, glass containers and toothbrushes. A joint research study with Dr. Marcus Eriksen, the Sea Dragon research expedition leader, will be available in the future.

The patch, also known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, is often misunderstood to be an enormous area of debris floating together--an island of trash--but that's not true, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In reality, "pre-tsunami plastic" and other debris are spread widely across the gyre, with most of it in variable stages of photodegradation. (Learn more at marinedebris.noaa.gov.)

The expedition was made possible through a partnership with Algalita Marine Research Institute (formerly, Foundation), 5 Gyres Institute and Pangaea Exploration. According to a group press release, the goal of the journeys are to collect samples and study the effects of the plastic pollution and marine debris relative to: providing habitat for marine life and its ability to transport invasive species from one continent to another; rates of decomposition of debris; colonization of marine life on, and into, different materials; educating students through Algalita's blogs; and spatial distribution of debris along the entire voyage transect.

Although the 72-foot sailing vessel was unable to make it to Maui as originally planned, an expedition debriefing and discussion was held on Sunday, July 8, in the conference room at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), presented by the Maui Ocean Center (MOC) and the Maui County Environmental Department.

Moderated by Rob Parsons, executive assistant to the mayor for environmental concerns, the evening was filled with remarkable speakers, presentations and video clips to inform the community about the patches and surrounding areas, and how plastics continue to infect our ocean environment.

"The research voyages and outreach work being done by Algalita, Pangaea and 5 Gyres are of vital importance to the marine debris core issues of plastic proliferation and the health of our oceans," said Parsons.

The ship landed on O'ahu rather than Maui due to the uncooperative winds, including a Category 5 typhoon at one point, and due to the "dangerously low" fuel and supplies, according to Jeanne Gallagher of Algalita Marine Research Institute. Welcoming events were cancelled due to the change of plans, but MOC representatives and other organizations were still pleased to share the expedition's critical information.

Four of the crewmembers from the second leg of the research expedition were able to make the flight to Maui from Honolulu, and joined about 50 attendees Sunday evening at HIHWNMS.

"We traveled across an area known as the Japan Tsunami Marine Debris Field," said crewmember Stiv Wilson, a freelance environmental journalist and the communications director for The 5 Gyres Institute. "This is my fourth trip to the gyre, and there's a tsunami of trash that enters our ocean each day death by a million cups."

He said there's no way to design a way out of this problem, that "it's not going to work," and that we need to take a look at single-use plastic and its dire effects on our oceans, and not rely on recycling.

Wilson is also an ambassador for Surfrider Foundation and an advisor to The United Nations Safe Planet campaign. He mentioned that within his legislation work, he uses the incredible images of the Maui landfill fence--which show the extraordinary difference after the plastic bag ban went into effect in 2011--during bag ban policy hearings on the Mainland.

The first leg of the research vessel was from the Marshall Islands to Tokyo, Japan, in May.

To learn more about this incredible trip, including vital information shared by crew members Cynthia Matzke, a marine biologist and director of Trilogy's Blue 'Aina Campaign on Maui, and marine ecologist Dr. Hank Carson of the University of Hawai'i, visit the Maui Weekly's online blog "The Dish From Trish" (www.mauiweekly.com) and tune in to "The Weekly Dish" radio show on Friday, July 20.

The vessel left Japan on June 7 on a second leg through the North Pacific Gyre to track and investigate material swept out to sea by the tsunami, and to confirm a computer model forecast that the debris field is indeed moving east and north of Hawaiian Islands towards the Mainland.

"The debris is not going to arrive in some big event, and will be a slow trickle," said Wilson. "It's still largely a mystery of how the North Pacific works on a currents standpoint."

"You feel very small out there in the sea, and it's disturbing to see how much plastic and Styrofoam is floating out there," said crewmember Dani Lerario, a biologist from Brazil. "We have a lot of work to do."

Discover more about the crew's activities by visiting www.algalita.org/blog and learn more about the awareness work at www.5gyres.org and www.mauioceancenter.com.

In next week's issue, the Maui Weekly will examine the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission beach cleanup of over 31 tons of plastic last year, and Hawai'i Wildlife Fund Vice President Cheryl King's travels to Switzerland where over 6.6 tons of the debris are on display in the "The Plastic Garbage Project" within the Zurich Museum of Design.

 
 

 

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