Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Plastics in the Pacific: Tsunami debris?

Kim McCabe is a Visitor Education Specialist at the New England Aquarium. She recently returned from an expedition in the North Pacific ocean studying plastic debris and its impact on the marine ecosystem. She'll be sharing some of her observations and reactions through the coming over the coming days.

From my last post you know that 95 percent of the pieces we found were smaller than your pinky nail.  But we also took notice of debris that was visible to the naked eye from the deck of our ship. We spent ten minutes of every daylight hour specifically scanning the waters for debris and carefully logging flotsam we spotted. Determining the definite origin of most of these objects is difficult or impossible.  Often it is just pieces of plastic or foam, huge swaths of fishing nets and tangled lines, fishing buoys with no definitive markings, and plastic bottles with no labels. Given our cruise track there is a possibility that some of this debris could be from the Japanese tsunami.

One of the first large pieces we found was a red round plastic fishing buoy stamped with Japanese characters. We sent a photo of the characters out for translation and found out that the buoy originated in a southern sub-region of Hokkaido. Besides fishing buoys we saw other small items like a capped plastic beverage bottle, a soccer ball, and a childs rubber ball.

A refrigerator found in the middle of the Pacific could be tsunami debris from Japan

Possibly our most startling find of the trip was an intact refrigerator floating in the middle of the ocean. We did not have the space or means to take it onboard but we were able to open a drawer and extract various packaged foods and wrappers labeled with Japanese characters. My personal favorite piece of flotsam was a “rare” glass fishing floats—we found two! These beautiful round glass balls were traditionally used to float fishing nets in Japan before plastic came along.

Items from a drawer of the fridge have Japanese characters

Finding “treasures” out at sea such as the items listed here can be thrilling, the excitement onboard is palpable when we spot something, change course, and attempt retrieval. The strange part is that it becomes a bittersweet moment because the floating debris has a history—potentially of devastation.

Plastics in the ocean has been covered on Aquarium blogs several times, unfortunately. Learn about finding plastic debris on remote Indonesian reefs, in the open waters around Costa Rica, around islands in the Bahamas and learn how some people in Dominica are learning to reduce, reuse and recycle.

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