Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hello from aboard ORV Alguita in the Pacific Ocean! ORV stands for Oceanographic Research Vessel, and Alguita is the research vessel that has carried our research team to the most remote regions of the Pacific Ocean to study plastic pollution. Many of you have joined us on these voyages so I thought you would be interested to see what Alguita and crew are up to now.

There are over 4,000 miles of Ocean and North American Continent between us and the crew aboard Sea Dragon- but we are working together to answer many of the same questions about plastic pollution. Today our job aboard ORV Alguita is to investigate the connection between plastic pollution entering the ocean through our watershed and the marine food web in Southern California. We also had the opportunity to head a little way offshore to observe some of the debris flushed out to sea by the recent storms. (The pic to the left shows some of what we found.)

Marcus and Anna have explained that most of the plastic pollution that they are finding in remote areas of the ocean found its way into the ocean through watersheds. Plastic litter on land flows directly out to sea when it rains. Today we traveled to the mouths of three major rivers here in Southern California: The Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers to see if the large quantities of plastics entering the oceans at the river mouths are also entering the food chain through the mouths of fish. (The pic to the left is of the mouth of the Santa Ana River.)

To find out if the fish at the river mouths have been eating the plastic debris as it flushes out to sea, the crew used an otter trawl to collect fish from the ocean floor. Here the crew is pulling in the net to see what they have caught. For those of you who have joined on past voyages you may recognize Captain Moore, Christiana (our ichthyologist) and Jeff- Facundo also joined in and helped everything run smoothly. Below on the left Christiana shows us two queenfish that she collected in the trawl. Unfortunately a few of the trawls contained almost as much plastic pollution as they did fish. On the right is an anchovy she caught in the trawl along with the plastic top of a soda cup, a piece of plastic packaging, and a black trash bag. The fish will be taken back to the laboratory where Gwen and Christiana will examine the contents of their stomachs.

Today we also had the opportunity to head a bit farther offshore to see how much plastic pollution the recent storms washed out to sea. It was very disappointing to find windrows thick with plastic pollution outside the harbor in the open ocean. We stopped briefly to scoop up what we could. It is interesting to see how similar plastic items congregate in the same location. We found one section of a windrow that was dominated by plastic straws of every color, shape and size- a "strawrow". Some are striped with a bend, others have spoons on one end for digging through a slurpee. As the straws bob amid loose bits of seaweed they look like the branching canopy of some mysterious underwater plastic forest.
A cormorant surfaces through the "strawrow" adorned with a clear straw- the reality of how we have littered this marine organism's home suddenly strikes deep. The straws are difficult to catch because they slip through the mesh of our nets- but after a few moments we already have a collection of 32 straws. Nearby we find a section of the windrow where plastic bottle caps have gathered.

Unfortunately today we were also reminded of how directly plastic pollution can harm wildlife. Several California sea lions were sunbathing on a buoy. As we passed by them Captain Moore noticed that one had plastic fishing line wrapped around her neck- a potentially deadly necklace. It was frustrating that we could do nothing for her- she is still strong and if we had approached her she would have slipped into the water and swam away. All I could do was take pictures and ask all of you to be very careful with your fishing line if you go fishing.

The variety of plastic pollution we encountered today was bewildering, but the strangest item was a balloon. Balloons unfortunately are an extremely common sight on the water, many people throw parties and release their balloons into the air (though I know none of you would do this). We saw balloons of all shapes and colors today but this one was different. We could see this bright pink balloon from quite a distance, when we got closer Captain Moore skillfully captured it with the boat hook. Pink, shiny and adorned with a picture of Hanna Montana the balloon read "Lets Rock." And sure enough hitting the balloon with the boat hook caused it to launch into song from a small speaker embedded inside.

For me, the day provided a continually changing perspective on our local marine ecosystems. Dolphins joined us to play in front of our bow, pelicans and terns dove from the air catching fish around the research vessel, harbor seals and sea lions basked in the sun barely opening their eyes as we passed- the diversity of marine life in this area is amazing! Similarly to Marcus and Anna's experience in the Atlantic, as we passed through windrows of plastic litter suddenly the serene ocean scene would give way to an uncomfortable reminder of our impacts on the ocean and how much work we have ahead of us.

Thank you all for joining us -Holly-

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