Plastics and the Public Periphery

Laysan Albatross & Plastic Debris

My first blog feature on Climate Shifts was about marine debris. I wanted to get the word out there after recent Pacific travels. The usual litmus test encouraged me: does my family know about this issue? They didn’t. So, the video I had made for an academic class entered the YouTube world for Mom and blog-followers alike.

My first blog as an official contributor is about public awareness. Both Good Morning America and Stephen Colbert have spotlighted this issue in the past few months. But there really has been no mass response to the overwhelmingly apparent problem. Today,  CNN presents a long form video piece on pacific “plastic soup” featuring Capt. Charles Moore whom some accredit with discovering – what the media has dubbed – the “garbage patch.” The man has salt in his hair but not too many citations to his name. And, surprise: he didn’t discover it. Biologists at Midway Atoll have been quantifying the peculiarly abundant presence of plastic in the north Pacific since the late 1960s.

As an aspiring scientist myself, I’m struck by the lack of scientific faces in these media pieces.  The anthropogenic blame here is undeniable and disturbing. While many scientists are going on the front lines defending climate change, other phenomena of global environmental change are being left in the periphery.

The task asked of scientists is different than that of defending climate change. Instead of sound science and strong arguments, the issue needs eloquence and persistence in communicating the growing body of science assessing the ecological effects of marine debris. Fortunately, the three letters “PhD” still command a level of respect and recognition from mass audiences. It may be this recognition that can draw the “garbage patch” problem fully out from the periphery of the public consciousness.

Where Does It All Go? The ‘Pacific Garbage Patch’

LA River 2
The Algalita Marine Research Foundation is on a 2 month voyage across the Pacific to study the concentration of plastics in the North Subtropical Gyre.  This area has been known as the “Pacific Garbage Patch” due to the convergence of several ocean currents that drag garbage from all corners of the globe.  Not only is there large floating debris (bottle caps, toothbrushes, plastic bags, etc.) but half of the debris found is small chips of unidentifiable plastics.

Charles Moore, who discovered this garbage patch, found plastic flakes floating 10 meters below the surface like “snowflakes or fish food”.  The more disturbing fact is the weight of plastic far outweighed the plankton in the water.  Consequently there are increasing accumulations of plastic on beaches in the Pacific.  UNEP estimates that plastic is killing a million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles every year.

Scientific American magazine are blogging the voyage (link ), as are the Algalita foundation (link), which makes for a fascinating yet depressing read:

Chrisitana and Jeff each reeled in a mahi mahi today, one right after the other. The fish served a double purpose, science and sustenance. Before we filleted the fish, Christiana took muscle and liver samples of each of the fish and looked in their stomachs. Fish number 3, the mahi mahi that Jeff reeled in, contained what the Captain confirmed via microscope as none other than a piece of plastic film. This now makes 8 species of fish in which we have identified with plastic in their gut.