The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 has scientists worldwide poring over blurry satellite images of remote portions of the Indian Ocean. While some of these photos may provide promising leads, others highlight a different problem: There is a lot of “stuff” in our ocean that doesn’t belong there.
Words of lost hope and unsolvable problems have been circulating the past few days in response to an article highlighting Ivan Macfadyen’s sail from Melbourne to Osaka. In the article, this long-time sailor describes the waters of his Pacific crossing as desolate and without life, “… for 3,000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Macfadyen goes on to describe in detail that in place of the missing life were abhorrent sights and volumes of garbage.
Reactions on social media have included words such as sad, scary and heartbreaking. But most of all, I’m concerned about posts like this one:
It is clear that our ocean is facing unprecedented times and growing environmental challenges. In many places, we’re treating rivers and coastal waters like refuse pits for our unwanted waste. We are catching too many fish, and we are putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where it is finding its way into the ocean with troubling consequences. However, I’m not yet ready to throw in the towel, and it troubles me that this article leaves people feeling hopeless. We know that if people are left with despair, they have little motivation to work toward solutions.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, millions of people around the world joined the world’s largest volunteer effort on behalf of ocean and waterway health. Thousands of International Coastal Cleanup events were held at locations ranging from beaches to riverfronts, lakeside to underwater reefs. Whether you picked one bottle cap off the beach or hauled a refrigerator from a creek bed, thank you for participating.
And everyone who participated helped tackle one of the biggest threats to the health and resiliency of our ocean and waterways: trash. This trash, namely disposable plastics, is entirely human-generated. That means it’s entirely preventable, and we can all play a role in solving it.
Some of the fastest growing populations in the United States are located in the Gulf Coast region. The population size in the Gulf states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas is approximately 56 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the total U.S. population.
Growth in coastal populations is expected to put additional pressure on coastal and marine environments, including wildlife and water quality. In addition, rising sea levels, land subsidence and episodic storm events will also challenge human communities along the Gulf Coast.
Midway Atoll is truly “out there.” The closet population center is Honolulu, 1,200 miles to the southeast and a five-hour trip by plane. But despite its remoteness, Midway is not immune to the impacts of plastic debris.
Midway’s central position in the North Pacific Gyre makes it a sink for debris, which results in immense, daily accumulations on the island’s sandy beaches. This collection of debris—almost entirely plastics—threatens the endangered monk seals and sea turtles that inhabit Midway’s beaches and forage in the atoll’s shallow waters. Plastics that threaten the 1.5 million Laysan albatross on Midway, however, arrive in a different manner.
Scientists, artists, educators, citizens—we all view the world through different lenses but we can agree on one thing: there is no place for plastics in our natural environment. This was the sentiment that brought together Team GYRE, a group of 14 experts from drastically different backgrounds—science, art, education, film—to research, educate and eliminate marine debris from the ocean.
Over the course of seven days, my teammates and I surveyed some of Alaska’s most remote beaches in an attempt to document the scale and scope of marine debris on the vast coastline. Alaska is unique in that the magnitude of debris on its isolated pocket beaches are is among the largest concentration of plastics and trash on this planet, yet adjacent to these artifacts of human consumerism, magnificent wildlife thrive both above and below the ocean’s surface.
The video above, produced by National Geographic, perfectly illustrates this contrast.
200 miles, 7 beaches, 4 islands and over 7,500 pieces of trash: These numbers can be used to describe my time with Rozalia Project in the Gulf of Maine. But they don’t tell the whole story. Instead “inspiring” seems to capture most of my emotions.
Incredible scenery and wildlife served as the backdrop for the long days we spent collecting and removing trash while living aboard American Promise. Not only were we surrounded by a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins as we sailed south from Hurricane Island, but we also had a finback whale come within 5 meters of the boat at sunset. We saw the spouts of another whale in the moonlight reflecting off the ocean, and we observed harbor porpoises and seals, a pair of bald eagles and even an ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, in Gosport Harbor.
Our crew of 10—eight people and two dogs—were united with one goal: to remove as much trash from the shoreline and ocean surface as possible while recording data about each and every item we removed. Sailing from Bar Harbor to Kittery, Maine, we conducted seven shoreline cleanups on four different islands, and aboard American Promise, we performed three Neuston net tows and multiple dip-net sessions—all resulting in the collection of a lot of trash.