The Great Pacific Garbage Patch...

topic posted Thu, June 15, 2006 - 11:55 PM by  Unsubscribed
There is a large part of the central Pacific Ocean that no one ever visits and only a few
ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail.
Fisherman leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert. This
area includes the “horse latitudes,” where stock transporters in the age of sail got stuck,
ran out of food and water and had to jettison their horses and other livestock.
Surprisingly, this is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being about the size of Africaover
ten million square miles. A huge mountain of air, which has been heated at the
equator, and then begins descending in a gentle clockwise rotation as it approaches the
North Pole, creates this ocean realm. The circular winds produce circular ocean currents
which spiral into a center where there is a slight down-welling. Scientists know this
atmospheric phenomenon as the subtropical high, and the ocean current it creates as the
north Pacific central or sub-tropical gyre.
Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, the largest uniform climatic feature on
earth is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter
where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here, sometimes after
drifting around the periphery for twelve years or more. Historically, this debris did not
accumulate because it was eventually broken down by microorganisms into carbon
dioxide and water. Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural
deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and
insidious bacteria. They are plastics. Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our
modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them, and even drive in
them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap, and can be made into virtually anything. But
it is these useful properties of plastics, which make them so harmful when they end up in
the environment. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever!
If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It “photo-degrades” – a process in which
it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic
polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for
anything to digest. For the last fifty-odd years, every piece of plastic that has made it
from our shores to the Pacific Ocean, has been breaking down and accumulating in the
central Pacific gyre. Oceanographers like Curtis Ebbesmeyer, the world’s leading
flotsam expert, refer to it as the great Pacific Garbage Patch. The problem is that it is not
a patch, it’s the size of a continent, and it’s filling up with floating plastic waste. My
research has documented six pounds of plastic for every pound of plankton in this area.
My latest 3-month round trip research voyage just completed in Santa Barbara this week,
(our departure was covered by SBNP) got closer to the center of the Garbage Patch than
before and found levels of plastic fragments that were far higher for hundreds of miles.
We spent weeks documenting the effects of what amounts to floating plastic sand of all
sizes on the creatures that inhabit this area. Our photographers captured images of
jellyfish hopelessly entangled in frayed line, and transparent filter feeding organisms with
colorful plastic fragments in their bellies.
As we drifted in the center of this system, doing underwater photography day and night,
we began to realize what was happening. A paper plate thrown overboard just stayed
with us, there was no wind or current to move it away. This is where all those things that
wash down rivers to the sea end up. On October 10, during our return trip to Santa
Barbara, we discovered something never before documented-a Langmuir Windrow of
plastic debris. Circular ocean currents with contrary rotation create long lines of
material, visible from above as streaks on the ocean. Normally these are formed by
planktonic organisms or foam, but we discovered one made of plastic. Everything from
huge hawsers to tiny fragments were formed into a miles long line. We picked up
hundreds of pounds of netting of all types bailed together in this system along with every
type and size of debris imaginable. Sometimes, windrows like this drift down over the
Hawaiian Islands. That is when Waimanalo Beach on Oahu gets coated with blue green
plastic sand, along with staggering amounts of larger debris. Farther to the northwest, at
the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, monk seals, the most
endangered mammal species in the United States, get entangled in debris, especially
cheap plastic nets lost or discarded by the fishing industry. Ninety percent of Hawaiian
green sea turtles nest here and eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do
Laysan and Black Footed Albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of Laysan Albatross
look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them.
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 multicellular organisms on the planet) 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.
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.
I know that when people think of the deep blue ocean, they see images of pure, clean,
unpolluted water. After we sample the surface water in the central Pacific, I often dive
over with a snorkel and a small aquarium net. I have yet to come back after a fifteen
minute swim without plastic fragments for my collection. I can no longer see pristine
images when I think of the briny deep. Neither can I imagine any “beach cleanup” type
of solution. Only elimination of the source of the problem can result in an ocean nearly
free from plastic, and the desired result will only be seen by citizens of the third
millennium AD. The battle to change the way we produce and consume plastics has just
begun, but I believe it is essential that it be fought now. The levels of plastic particulates
in the Pacific have at least tripled in the last ten years and a tenfold increase in the next
decade is not unreasonable. Then, sixty times more plastic than plankton will float on its
Captain Charles Moore
Aboard Oceanographic Research Vessel, Alguita,,
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