We’re in the Gyre, or at least the southeastern edge of it. And there’s trash. We’ve got our marine debris trawl deployed to collect it. Remember, the North Pacific Gyre is a clockwise rotating mass of water roughly twice the size of the U.S. where currents and winds slow down. It’s like a toilet bowl that never flushes. JUNK is currently floating at 24N latitude and 139W longitude.
Take a look at the 20-year study done by Jim Ingraham tracking a couple dozen buoys around the Pacific Ocean.
In the photo, the red dots are buoys released from Japan, and the blue squares are buoys released from North America. They floated in circles around the Pacific Ocean for two decades until settling in the middle of the gyre (and are probably still there.) But plastic debris is not confined to these zones.
In February 2008, Joel, Anna and I were half the crew aboard the ORV Alguita with Captain Charles Moore traveling 4000 miles from Hawaii to the center of the Pacific Ocean and returning to Long Beach California. We discovered that plastic debris exists everywhere in the North Pacific Gyre. In 1999 Captain Moore first discovered the oceanic landfill, or “seafill” with a concentration of .002grams per square meter. Then in 2005 the density jumped to .004, doubling in only 6 years. Now in 2008 we have yet to process the latest samples, but we can confidently say it’s gotten worse.
Even the American Chemistry Council, a trade organization representing the major U.S. plastic industries, conducted their own study of plastic marine debris. They replicated our study, but chose a location in the Pacific Ocean where you wouldn’t expect to find any plastic at all, the Bering Sea....read on for more details:
The Bering Sea sits under a low-pressure system that kicks debris out, whereas the North Pacific Gyre is a constant high-pressure system sucking debris in. The Bering Sea is also adjacent to a sparsely populated coastline. You wouldn’t expect to find plastic there at all. Yet, there it was. The ACC confirmed that wherever you go in the Pacific Ocean you are bound to find plastic. It’s everywhere.
JUNK is skirting the edge of the gyre, riding the rim of the toilet bowl. We are using a marine debris trawl with a one-millimeter mesh, and an opening the size of a shoebox. It skims the surface for floating trash. We kept it out all night to see what we would find. Earlier in the day I spotted a few bits of trash: 1inch diameter plastic washer, short length of rope, and a tangled mass of green fishing line or frayed rope as big as my fist. We deployed the marine debris trawl and in the morning were not surprised by what we found.
At night zooplankton migrate from the depths to the surface to feed. It’s the largest migration of wildlife in the world, and it happens every day. Tiny jellies, salps and myctophid fish with light-emitting photophores on their stomachs give off green flashes of light as JUNK sails through the darkness. These creatures swim to the surface to feed, unfortunately on a diet that includes more and more plastic particles. Our trawl captured dozens of visible white, blue, green, grey and black fragments of plastic.
There was a piece of a plastic bag, a possible milk crate, fishing line, a pre-production plastic pellet, and a flexible, green, triangular fragment perhaps once a piece of a flip-flop. Interestingly, the red, orange and tan pieces are gone. Once again, everywhere you go in the Pacific Ocean there is plastic trash.
Today we will deploy our marine debris trawl again. We will likely sample every day until we arrive in Honolulu, which should be in about 4 weeks.