Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Flotsam & Jetsam & the Pacific Trash Gyre

The Sailing Anarchy Forum has generated an interesting conversation about things people have seen floating on various waterways while sailing. The discussion was prompted by this article about a slowly swirling mass of tiny plastic trash that's twice the size of Britain in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Below, I've listed the things the sailors wrote they'd seen floating around the world:
A note on the high number of dead cows reported: One commentor had this to say:

"I used to sail as an engineer aboard containerships and tankers, and I was constantly amazed at the shit that was perfectly legal to dump overboard. We were transporting live cattle from Hawaii to Oakland, CA and every once in a while, espically in rough seas, one or 2 of the cows would die. The cattle were basically packed shoulder to shoulder in these special cattle containers, and the ones on the ends would sometimes get crushed to death from the pitching motion of the ship. In order to avoid spreading disease to the other cattle, the deck crew had to winch the dead cattle overboard.

We used to dispose of anything that was considered ‘biodegradable’ overboard - that included massive hunks of steel trash, wooden packing material and dunnage, empty 55 gallon drums (no longer legal since they have oil residue in them, however it was permitted as recent as 10 years ago), food waste, unruly Mass Maritime cadets, anything except plastic. And yes, that included the aforementioned 6 foot flourescent light bulbs, and they wouldnt always break."
My brother is a biologist on Midway Atoll and sees piles of plastic garbage wash ashore every day.

The LA Times won a 2007 Pulitzer for a series of stories about the world's distressed oceans, including "Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas".
I was more interested in the original story, so I looked into that. There are tons of stories which verify the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches but I cannot for the life of me find a single picture. If such a huge thing of trash exists, why hasn't someone taken a picture of it from the deck of their boat? If it really is twice the size of Texas as some internet rehashers claim or as large as Britain, why aren't there satellite photos? I consider myself environmental friendly and am fully willing to beleive there is a continent of trash out there, but since I can't find a picture in this era of wide spread multi-media, some minor doubts are trickling into my brain. Can anyone get visual confirmation?


"When I learned of the trash gyre, I was equally skeptical, due to common misconceptions that get perpetuated in mainstream media articles. The most common misconception is that the trash pile is like an island, or a dense pile like this one in San Diego Harbor. It’s not packed in as tight as that - it’s more like a dense collection of tiny floating pieces of plastic, most of which are not on the surface. A big container ship or naval vessel going through there would probably not notice much out of the ordinary - after all, there is some degree of plastic trash floating on the surface all over the world.

To really get a sense of how much plastic is in there, you have to do a trawl, which entails dragging a net with a bucket on the end behind your boat. Here’s a photo of a bongo trawl taken off of southern California. (Thanks, Barbeau lab! SIO power!) And here’s a photo of what a normal bongo trawl should produce - lots of zooplankton, a few invertebrates, and the occasional small fish.

Now, contrast this with the results of a trawl from the North Pacific Gyre. Here’s the bongo net being hauled up - see how the ocean looks normal? But the contents - plastic, plastic, and more plastic.* When all that plastic collects somewhere, you get beaches like this one in the NW Hawaiian Islands.

For this reason, the trash gyre would be very, very hard to clean up. The plastic is so small, and so scattered, that it would take high-intensity trawling similar to that for shrimp. And shrimp trawling kills 10 pounds of non-targeted life (sharks, turtles, fish, you name it) for every pound of shrimp gathered. (Yes, Forrest Gump lied to you - for some reason they didn’t want drowned turtles next to Tom Hank’s angelic self.) The mortality caused by trying to remove all the trash in the gyre would probably be similar. We’re just going to have to live with it and try to prevent it from getting any bigger."
Cool, thanks LB. That certainly explains it. A great example of how the internet tends to skew facts.

It still does not lessen my disgust of the situation or feeling powerless to do anything.
Here's a video on the trash gyre.
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