Thursday, August 27, 2009
Researchers are trying to find out the effects on marine life from a massive collection of plastic and other debris one-thousand miles off our coastline.
SAN DIEGO Researchers are trying to find out the effects on marine life from a massive collection of plastic and other debris 1,000 miles off our coastline. Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists have returned from a three-week trip exploring what's called the "Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch."
Dwane Brown: San Diego scientists are back on dry land after heading into the vast Pacific to check out garbage, and we're not talking about a little garbage, we're talking tons of plastic bottles, plastic bags -- much of it indestructible.
Alan Ray: It's called the Great Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch. Joining us on Morning Edition is Miriam Goldstein. She is the chief scientist for the SEAPLEX voyage. Good morning.
Miriam Goldstein: Good morning, it's great to be here.
Ray: Did you have any idea what you were actually going to see before you got there?
Goldstein: Well, we had some idea. There is an organization that's been going out there for about 10 years called the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and they have brought back some data. But we didn't have a really great idea. We weren't sure whether we'd see things with our eyes, or whether we'd only see things in our net tows, or whether we wouldn't be able to find plastic at all. Actually, it turned out that plastic pretty much found us.
Brown: What did you see when you got out there?
Goldstein: A lot of people think it looks like a sort of solid island or a garbage dump, but that's not what we saw. What we saw was a very beautiful ocean, a wonderful cerulean blue color, and every so often a big piece would just float by -- a big clump of net, or a plastic crate, or something like that. And then when we would put our nets in the water; we would just pull up lots of plastic. If you looked down and looked very carefully you could see the little pieces, but mostly the ocean just looked like ocean.
Ray: Any idea how it got there?
Goldstein: It's thought that much of this debris is coming off the land. The way the currents go pretty much everything that washes off the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia is likely to end up in the North Pacific gyre. There's also some fishing debris such as lines and floats and things that have also been abandoned in this huge area.
Brown: Describe how this plastic garbage is affecting marine life there.
Goldstein: Well, that's something that we don't really know yet. Certainly, the small particles, which are maybe the size of your thumbnail or smaller, are about the right size to potentially be ingested by, for example, fish and birds. That's one thing that is sort of hard to look at when you're just sort of going through there quickly on a ship, so we're hoping to get at that with our samples.
Ray: Do you have any suspicions about what the impact this garbage patch might have on marine life?
Goldstein: We conceived a couple possible scenarios. It could be that these pieces are being ingested, it could be that toxins are being passed on to the marine life through these samples, and we fortunately have a toxicologist on board who will be looking at that. And it could be that just having these hard surfaces floating in the middle of the ocean where there shouldn't be any hard surfaces might be causing life to grow that shouldn't necessarily be there, or changing the ways that, for example, fish move through the ocean. These are all things that we're hoping to look at.
Brown: So did you have any lightbulb moments, say, compared to what you knew about the garbage patch, versus what you learned when you went out?
Goldstein: I really didn't expect there to be as much as there was. I think my lightbulb moment was actually when I was out in our small inflatable boat going around, and it was a really calm day, and we'd been pulling up plastic in our nets for a while but ... there I was, just floating around in the middle of the ocean, no land for a thousand miles in any direction, and there are just these little pieces floating around on the surface. Enough of them to be able to see with your eyes, you'd look down and you'd see them floating by. And what, as a biologist, I found emotionally difficult was seeing all these really cool animals, that are not well-known to science, going about their business underneath these plastic pieces. It was this combination of the really intriguing and unknown, and the human impact really far away from land.