California and the
Presentation to the Marine Debris Panel
“A comparison of
neustonic plastic and zooplankton abundance in
southern California’s coastal waters and elsewhere in the North Pacific”
CAPTAIN CHARLES MOORE / Algalita Marine Research Foundation 30oct02
I want to start by thanking Steve Weisberg of SCCWRP for facilitating Algalita Marine Research Foundation’s data collection and analysis. Our collaboration is part of the new age of coalition building between NGO’s with stakeholder volunteers and scientific organizations with data collection needs. Such coalitions are going into the field and producing needed data of high quality for better management decisions.
This new century of marine research is characterized by greater and greater use of remote sensing. It is justified by the fact that there is so much to look at, and much data collection can be accomplished economically by systems such as the 4.5 billion dollar TRW satellite system announced here at the conference by NOAA Undersecretary, Tim Keeny. This is an unheard of amount of money for NOAA to put into a single, remote sensing, environmental monitoring system. There is also the rationale that many places are dangerous, difficult to sample and polluted. My friend, Joe Ayres at Northeastern University, got a 2 million dollar grant to build robot lobsters to sample toxic effluent and work in the littoral zone where there is a lot of wave action, looking for dangerous objects in wartime. The lobster robots can grip the bottom as they look for mines and such things.
In spite of this, there will always be a need to look at the ocean up close and personal. Much of the ocean’s value lies in our evident need to get close to it and immerse ourselves in it. Part of our Foundation’s mission is to get a close up, intimate assessment of our ocean-the exact opposite of remote sensing. Our research vessel crosses the vast Pacific and looks at our ancient mother in her face. How does she look, up close and personal? Visibly, she has a bad rash.
Debris is the most obvious type of marine pollution, yet it also has a hidden, insidious character that I began to recognize about 5 years ago, when the Coast Guard sent me a sample from Waimanalo Beach in Hawaii. It was a bag of fragments that had washed up on the beach sampled by James Marcus. I sent half of the sample to Curt Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading expert on marine flotsam and he told me that he floated it in a jar and saw particles of all sizes down to those that were too small to count. He used the data to calculate that a single liter soda bottle would break down into enough fragments to put one on every mile of beach in the entire world. He also told me that he believed these particles had been accumulated by the central Pacific gyre. With the help of Molly Leecaster and Shelly Moore, both statisticians at SCCWRP, a random sampling design to look for these particles in the North Pacific central gyre was developed. This 1999 study, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, found 6 times as much plastic as plankton by weight. We also counted the zooplankton in our samples, and in some of them the number of plastic fragments was actually greater than the number of zooplankton.
We next wanted to see if areas of higher biological productivity were equally impacted. Our most recent published study found 8 million fragments per square kilometer off the coast of LA and Orange Counties, 2.5 times the weight of the associated zooplankton.
I have now done ocean and coastal sampling for plastic fragments over twenty thousand miles of the North Pacific ocean, across 22 degrees of latitude and 50 degrees of longitude, sampling surface waters down to 100 feet and also getting samples from beaches. We just sailed in to Santa Barbara after our longest voyage yet aboard Oceanographic Research Vessel Alguita, a three month voyage sampling 7,500 miles of ocean. Each of our voyages produces amazing discoveries, and this was no exception. This Monday’s three page article in “US News and World Report” highlighted two of them; a 10 mile wide swath of an estimated 6 million Taco Bell Chalupa bags, El Pollo Loco Bags, Sears and other major retailers T-shirt style plastic bag, and a Langmuir cell of plastic of all size classes and all types, stretching for miles about as far from land as a human being can get on earth. Counter rotating ocean currents come together to form these cells and where they meet, the sinking water leaves anything that floats on the surface. Normally, these are living things, but not in this windrow. Rather, we found every type of plastic debris imaginable, from Japanese traffic cones, to yellow quart oil cans and giant nets and hawsers. This debris was overlain by what looked like foam from a distance, but on closer inspection was found to be small white and light colored floating plastic fragments. We now understood the origin of many of our plastic sand beach samples. The plastic sand washes ashore when these cells impact the Hawaiian Islands. We are just now getting our first baseline data on Pacific Ocean beaches’ plastic fragment load.
Statistics compiled and published last month by Jose’ Derraik found that marine debris affects at least 267 species worldwide, including 86% of all sea turtle species, 44% of all seabird species, and 43% of all marine mammal species. This study fails to note something that we have been the first to document, that is ingestion by filter feeders of small plastic bits and plastic dust. In our video I will show you pictures of salps after they have consumed plastic fragments. It’s not just entanglement and indigestion that are problems caused by plastic debris, however. There is a darker side to pollution of the ocean by ubiquitous plastic fragments. As these fragments float around , they accumulate the poisons we manufacture for various purposes that are not water-soluble. It turns out that plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs and nonylphenols -oily toxics that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons which affect the animal that ingests them directly. Rather, they are what might be called “second generation “ toxics. Animals have evolved receptors for elaborate organic molecules called hormones, which regulate brain activity and reproduction. Hormone receptors cannot distinguish these toxics from the natural estrogenic hormone, estradiol, and when the pollutants dock at these receptors instead of the natural hormone, they have been shown to have a number of negative effects in everything from birds and fish to humans. The whole issue of hormone disruption is becoming one of, if not the biggest environmental issue of the 21st Century. Hormone disruption has been implicated in lower sperm counts and higher ratios of females to males in both humans and animals. Unchecked, this trend is a dead end for any species.
A trillion trillion vectors for our worst pollutants are being ingested by the most efficient natural vacuum cleaners nature ever invented, the mucus web feeding jellies and salps (chordate jellies that are the fastest growing multi-cellular organisms on the planet and are said to filter half the water column they inhabit each day) out in the middle of the ocean. These organisms are in turn eaten by fish and then, certainly in many cases, by humans. We can grow pesticide free organic produce, but can nature still produce a pesticide free organic fish? After what I have witnessed first hand in the Pacific, I have my doubts.
This is a good time to show our new video produced by Bill Macdonald, Algalita Foundation’s Vice President for media and promotions. This video was produced by Bill working 'til midnight the last few nights going through the 50 hours of video tape we took on our voyage. Many of you have seen Bill’s stellar production “Synthetic Sea.” “Synthetic Sea” is a video that depicts our work on plastics during and after the 1999 gyre voyage, our first.
This new video incorporates some of that footage but leaves out the sound, so I will have to talk over parts of the video.
VIDEO 13 min.
I am often asked why we can’t vacuum up the particles. In fact, it would be more difficult than vacuuming up every square inch of the entire United States, it’s larger and the fragments are mixed below the surface down to at least 30 meters. Also, untold numbers of organisms would be destroyed in the process. Besides, there is no economic resource that would be directly benefited by this process. We have not yet learned how to factor the health of the environment into our economic paradigm. We need to get to work on this calculus quickly, for a stock market crash will pale by comparison to an ecological crash on an oceanic scale.
Algalita Marine Research Foundation partnered with the California Coastal Commission to author a Proposition 13 grant proposal for 482 thousand dollars, the complete funding of which was announced by Winston Hickox and Celeste Cantu at our Press Conference yesterday. The grant will help us look at the sources of plastic pellets like those used in this wave sculpture by Chuck Stone. One hundred billion pounds of these are produced annually in the United States Alone. One hundred and five million of them were found in a three month study of Orange County Beaches, making them our most common beach contaminant. Chuck has done several mosaics entirely of these pellets gathered from Huntington Beach. Maybe I should talk to him about handling so many of these “poison pills.” Their other common name, mermaid tears, is sadly appropriate.
The dust that these and all plastics photo-degrade into is capable of poisoning the entire marine ecosystem. The mission of our Marine Research Foundation has undertaken is to document and evaluate this ominous threat. One way to assess the problem is to look at the egg yolk hormone vitellogenin in fish. We have been seeking funding for a study of male kelp bass (Paralabrax clathratus) one of our most popular sport fish, to see if plastic ingestion induces the formation of this female hormone. Dr. Michael Baker of the UCSD school of Medicine will do the serum analysis.
Since plastic particulate pollution categorically cannot be cleaned up from the ocean, the crying need is to stop it at its source, and our grant will help us identify both large and small plastics molders who are contributing to this problem and the route that their pellets take to the rivers and then our beaches. We will engage the plants in dialog on how to alleviate the problem, but a paradigm shift in our attitude toward plastic on an international scale will be necessary to truly “turn off the plastic switch,” and the desired result even then will only be fully enjoyed by the citizens of the third millennium.
If you have come to this page from an outside location click here to get back to mindfully.org