Expedition to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

On the 6th of August, the ocean research vessel Alguita and her crew set sail for the coastal waters off Mexico to collect data on plastic in the ocean and its effect on fish. Among other members of the team, Win Cowger from the Let’s Do It! World knowledge team is taking part in the […]

On the 6th of August, the ocean research vessel Alguita and her crew set sail for the coastal waters off Mexico to collect data on plastic in the ocean and its effect on fish. Among other members of the team, Win Cowger from the Let’s Do It! World knowledge team is taking part in the expedition and shared some information about the trip beforehand. 

The boat’s captain is oceanographer Charles J. Moore, whose work and reporting first brought attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – the area of the Pacific Ocean strewn with floating plastic debris, which is twice the size of Texas. Win’s speciality area is microplastic in oceans and finding solutions to prevent it. The motto of the team is: “We can do better! We must do better!”

Can you say in a few words, who will be on this trip and what is the purpose?

We are sailing near the North Pacific Gyre (garbage patch) to collect data on plastics in the ocean and how they are affecting the fish there. Captain Charles Moore is the at the helm; sailing with him is Raquelle De Vine, first mate from New Zealand, Marty Klein, Engineer at Columbia University, Janine Rodriguez, who works with Pacific Coast Environmental Conservancy, Lindsey Kruse, an artist, and myself, Win Cowger, PhD Student and plastic pollution researcher from UC Riverside.

Where and for how long are you sailing?

We will sail to the North Pacific Gyre about 1000 km off the California shoreline and be on the water for two weeks.

Why did you choose this route?

The North Pacific Gyre is an accumulation zone where many tiny pieces of trash discarded by humans are piling up. Going there will help us understand what is happening in hard-hit areas and determine how quickly the plastic is accumulating. Otherwise, it is also a nice place to sail, so I have heard.

What are you specifically researching during this trip?

I will be assessing how deep the plastic goes, by collecting samples deep in the water column.

How bad is the plastic waste pollution in our oceans? What is the most recent news about the situation?

The plastic is accumulating on the surface at a quick rate. As recently published in Scientific Reports in Nature, Lebreton et al. note, “Evidence [is] that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic”. We know that this plastic is harmful to aquatic life when ingested and that the more we put out there, the worse it will be for them.

What are the less-known effects of the plastic pollution in our oceans? What signs of impact have you observed during your studies/travels?

There is more than 100 times more plastic going into the ocean each year than we find on the ocean surface, as published by Lebreton et al. 2018, “River Plastic Emissions to the World’s Oceans”. This means the plastic is going deep, very deep, even to the deep sea deep.

Additionally, at any given moment there are higher concentrations of plastics in streams than on the surface of the ocean, so if you want to know what the ocean’s surface looks like, check out your local stream.

What are the three main things that should be done on a global/local level to stop the escalation of the problem?

We know we can’t just go and clean up the ocean. The plastic goes too deep and it is already too late to retrieve what is out there. It will soon be beached, swallowed, or degraded into tiny pieces. What we need to do is to turn off the source, to stop what is on land from getting into the ocean.

Cleanup on land is a great first step. It gets people involved in the problem and if used as a tool for data collection, it can help us to better understand the problem. Second, we need to change our single-use culture. Single-use plastic items are the most common plastics in the environment. We should lobby our governments and corporations to rethink these items, because right now the consumer often has no other choice but to buy something wrapped in plastic. Lastly, we need to be conscious consumers and refuse single-use plastics like straws, bags, and take away containers. If you really need them, try bringing your own everywhere you go.

Follow the expedition: www.captain-charles-moore.org/awards-films