By: Matt Rutherford On: June 11, 2014 In: Education, STEM Education Comments: 0

It is day 47 and Matt and I are starting to think about what food we crave the most. We both agree a nice salad and fruit would be refreshing but then Matt changes his mind to a dozen BBQ chicken wings and I decide nachos would be tasty for our imaginary snack. Out here you live simply. You do not over eat, you produce very little waste such as one bag for trash and one bag for recyclables for two people for a few months. We make our own water every day. It can take up to two hours so we take turns pumping to produce the 5 liters we need. You begin to become very conscious of how much exposure you have to un-natural chemicals in you daily life because offshore you are surrounded by nature. How much of the packaged foods and toiletries that I stowed for use during this crossing have been partly compromised by harmful plastic chemicals and may be harmful products in disguise? I don’t know. I even question the very fibers of our clothing and here I go staring at my 100% plastic toothbrush again. Plastic seen afloat offshore or in use onboard the Sakura are likely polypropylene and polyethylene which by design have a knack to resist aging. The more I think of it I am surrounded by plastic whether onshore or offshore and refusing to buy harmful plastic will be a challenge that is slow to conquer and a lifelong challenge.

The more I think of it I am surrounded by plastic whether onshore or offshore and refusing to buy harmful plastic will be a challenge that is slow to conquer and a lifelong challenge.

We are hoping to be in Japan by the end of the month and plan to make landfall in Yokahama, the major port outside of Tokyo. We will have to navigate through some complicated waters and get to safe harbor before the summer typhoon season matures.  Once in Tokyo, I am excited to meet with Professor Hideshige Takada of the International Pelletwatch Program at University of Tokyo. He specializes in analyzing pre-production plastic pellets; by taking a closer look to see what toxins are absorbed and what toxic additives are a part of the pellet composition. We will be able to discuss what toxins have been discovered within the plastic samples that Matt and I collected in the North Atlantic Gyre last summer that he has been studying in his lab. He also plans on investigating a handful of samples from this expedition such as the worn plastic pellet found in our trawl today. With the help of Professor Takada we will be able to tell everyone just how toxic the plastic debris is in the marine environment in the North Atlantic Gyre and from one side of the Pacific Ocean to the other.  These chemicals are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP’s) and are known to be mutagenic and carcinogenic or cancer causing. Some of these chemicals will likely include: Polychlorinated Byphenols (PCB’s), Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and pesticides like DDT’s. POPs hang out and absorb within plastics of all shapes and sizes therefore interact with marine species from the wee sized plankton to whales and accumulate throughout the food web.

There are many marine species that are vulnerbale to plastic pollution. Last summer we spent 80 days within the North Atlantic Gyre in an area defined for its large floating mats of Sargassum seaweed. The Sargassum acts as a home, nursery, breeding ground for many sea turtles, eels, fish etc. As we sailed we would often pass by dozens of these seaweed patches but as we steered up close to take get a better look we realized we were often looking at clumps of colorful fishing line and ribbons of all sizes all knotted up. These clumps of plastic lines were supporting a small party of fish, crabs and other marine life just as sargassum would. During this expedition, we have been accompanied by soaring seabirds the whole way, every day, I wish I had a seabird field guide to help me identify them, I fear that they are the most well recognized victim impacted by plastic ocean pollution. About 44% of all seabirds swallow plastic debris while hunting for food at sea. I cannot claim to have witnessed them swallow plastic but Matt has mentioned that they have dived for his plastic fishing lores on more than one occasion in the past.  Although we have not found plastic in every trawl on this expedition we have found it in nearly every other trawl with the most plastic particles collected at southern edge of North Atlantic Gyre and Northwest of Wake Island. (20W 165E) The most common type of plastic we find are small bits at <5mm of fishing line. No surprise there, as abandoned, lost and discarded fishing line is a major component to plastic ocean pollution. I recall just a few days out of California coast and into the North Pacific Gyre over two days alone we observed over 12 plastic fishing buoys.

We need to watch out for microscopic bacterial creatures that take residence on plastic. Since plastic floats atop the waves of the world and rides its currents it is possible that a plastic bottle littered in the Chesapeake Bay could wind up in the Inland Sea of Japan but bring along uninvited hitchhiking bacteria that would likely be non-native and could contain disease that may threaten the well being of the marine ecosystem and watershed. Together with the Baltimore Underground Science Space we are checking out who is going for a ride and setting up residence on our plastic samples. Their lab scientists are determining what bacterial DNA exist and what do they do.

It is clear that plastics can pose a threat whether in the environment or in use by a consumer. Are the plastics leaching chemicals and are we eating seafood withholding plastic chemicals known to cause cancer? How are marine species who substitute plastic afloat for natural habitat like Sargassum coping with the change? These are the questions that the Ocean Research Project explores with scientists who want to understand what threatens a sustainable marine environment and poses a threat to human health.Besides changing our behavior to dispose of plastic properly we need to educate ourselves on how to shop smarter, picking benign products, non-harmful plastics composed without POP’s that have manufacturer extended responsibility incorporated into product disposal. Many of you have heard of the key solutions to plastic pollution the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, well let’s add on a few more Redesign and Recover. Can you come up with suggestions on how you can or have applied the R’s at school and at home? Will these suggestions help keep plastic out of the ocean?

Sailing Along,  (22/16 W 161/18E)

Nicole Trenholm