Wednesday, January 30, 2008

In the thick of it - Day 9-

Our noon position: 33 00.908 North Latitude, 167 54.150 West Longitude

Another highly successful day for the ORV Alguita. In preparing for this trip, the big wild card was the weather. And while our travel to get here was earlier likened to a bucking bronco, now that were in our key sampling area, stars, winds and pressure zones seem to be aligning in our favor.

When today’s weather fax arrived, Charles took one look at it, and whooped out loud while doing a victory dance, “oh my GOD will you look at that HIGH! It's covering the WHOLE NORTH PACIFIC!! This is really tremendous news.” The calm conditions produced by a huge high-pressure zone surrounding us, has meant continued perfect sampling weather, right in our DELI assessment destination zone. Taking advantage of these dream conditions, we sampled three times today, stopping every thirty miles to re-deploy the Manta trawls for two hours at a time.

Our first samples were almost entirely plastic, along with a few fascinating creatures. The image above shows some crew members displaying our morning sample - the plastic plauge in a bottle. No two trawls have been the same – each time we open the collecting bags, it is something of a treasure hunt. Like this unusual, alien-like Nudibranch, which we had to hunt through a marine invertebrate book to identify. For those interested in Nudibranches (sea slugs that lack a shell and a mantle cavity), this Glaucus Atlanticus floats upside down at the oceans surface, and relies mostly on passive transport by wind and currents. This is but one of many species were finding daily, swimming about in this thickening plastic stew. Which underscores an issue Charles brought up this evening after dinner, which was another culinary triumph, details to follow…

There are some who try to downplay the significance of Algalita’s findings, claiming that since the areas where we have been finding high ratios of plastic to plankton are so low in biological productivity, that these ratios are of no major significance . We are now, however, out here “in the thick of it”, that is, the area where " A sharp transition in surface chlorophyll concentration separates the subpolar and subtropical gyres...In the North Pacific Ocean, this feature has been called the transition zone chlorophyll front, and ... has been identified as an important migratory and foraging habitat for a number of apex predators." (Bograd and Foley et al., Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 31, 2004). Here we are finding alarming quantities of plastic-more than we have ever found before- in an area of tremendous biological richness.

We’re finding the highest levels of pollution in highly productive zones.

The significance of this is far greater than people may have realized. We are now seeing that the fragmented plastic debris issue is prevalent in areas of commercial significance. There is a greater urgency than ever before in getting governments involved in policy and legislation to deal with the issue. Unfortunately, in regions like the one we are currently studying, there is no political entity responsible, as we are in International waters, outside of any country’s jurisdiction. As is the case with many issues of global ecological degradation, the Tragedy of the Commons comes into effect…

Several students on the Ship to Shore blog had questions about what, if anything, our government is or should be doing about this issue. This is something we will address in the coming week.

In our third and last sample of the day, we noted a dramatic difference in biomass. Instead of the midday array of plastic particles, a few salps, pelagic crabs, and feathers, we pulled up large, gelatinous mounds of zooplankton – in which were imbedded the usual fragments. This has to do with plankton migration, a fascinating daily occurrence that we’ll expound upon tomorrow.

We ended a good days work with another fantastic meal, this time prepped by our Captain Chef – gourmet fish and chips. Fresh Ono, lightly breaded and fried, with thick steak fries, homemade slaw, guacamole, and tortilla chips. Were well fueled, and ready for what should be another productive day tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s post will also address a few questions posed by friends and family members about our upcoming locations etc. Thank you as always, your comments are all very much appreciated!

Aloha and gracias from the Captain and crew of ORV Alguita.

Anna Cummins, ship's blogger


lcander said...

Are you collecting any fish to test for contamination from the plastic? It seems to me that people might be more concerned if the fish they eat might be polluted because of the plastic.

Kaisa said...

The problem seems so massive as to be almost hopeless. ¿Does anyone have any realistic ideas as to how to take care of the existing problem of all this plastic, or are efforts going to be directed toward preventing the pollution from getting worse?W

West Lafayette High School
Grade 9
West Lafayette, IN, USA

Sr. Chief said...

Are you planning to head west of the int. date line or are you still heading straight north?

Anonymous said...

Just wondering about the fish that you guys are eating out there. Have you found plastic inside any of them? Are you worried about toxins in the fish?

I agree with lcander that in order to get many people's attention, they have to feel that the plastic is harming them personally rather than just a few marine animals that they don't feel connected to.

Sam said...

About realistic ideas for the existing plastic problem.. I asked Curtis Ebbsmeyer the same question. He made a good point: avoid it getting to the ocean in the first place. As consumers, our dollar votes count. Don't buy plastic if you can avoid it, recycle it, use fabric grocery bags, ask for foil instead of plastic takeout containers, don't put your produce in a plastic bag, etc. If we all did even a little bit, we could make a huge impact that way alone.

laura said...

this is laura, joel's sister's best friend. his mom (lcander) has me hooked on your blog.

talk about a fantastic voyage! what valuable research.

keep up the good work.