Ocean Plastics

Sea Dragon is working long-term with 5-Gyres and their partners to document the amount of floating debris in our world’s oceans. Partly through the work of this team, we have known for almost 20 years that plastic entered the ocean and was accumulating at sea. The emerging picture is now, perhaps, more concerning than ever. Plastic debris from modern society is entering the ocean at prodigious rates, carrying with it all the threats of both physical and chemical pollution. The debris – toothbrushes, straws, toys, bags and unrefined pre-production material called “neerdles” is accumulating all over the world’s beaches…and in great concentrations at sea. These areas form in what are called “gyres” or the centers of great oceanic currents. The Sargasso Sea in the north Atlantic is probably the best known of these for its legendary ability to trap ships. An area north of Hawaii acts the same way – and has been trapping large amounts of plastic for years. We have been saddened to see images of Albatross birds literally choking to death on discarded toothbrush. Carl Safina wrote of this in his tremendous 2002 book, Eye of the Albatross. In designating the Northwest Hawaiian Islands National Monument, former First Lady Laura Bush captured the issue well:

Unfortunately, I also saw the marine debris that threatens the existence of these
albatross and other animals that are there. From plastic toys to discarded computer monitors,
trash is carried by currents from all over the world. Midway’s beaches collect derelict fishing gear
from China, medicine bottles from the mainland United States, cigarette lighters from all over the
world. This debris then finds its way into the birds’ stomachs, killing thousands of birds every
And we did, more than once, as we walked around yesterday, see the carcass of a little bird. And
you could open it up and see all this plastic, because the adult albatross fish on the waters, they
skim the waters for squid, and because this plastic floats, they pick it up and then feed it to their
People everywhere have a responsibility to be good stewards of our environment, because the
trash we throw in our neighborhood gutter can devastate rare wildlife half a world away. In the
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, our government is working to keep the reefs and beaches clear
of this dangerous marine debris. In 2006, NOAA picked up 21 tons of debris in the islands, and
has collected more than 560 tons over the last ten years. Through a partnership between the
state of Hawaii and the federal government, divers have cleared more than 120 tons of derelict
fishing gear off the islands’ reef

NOAA’s Marine Debris Program appears to be the lead team in the Federal Government that is wrestling with this issue. Their Marine Debris website has some very good overall content. With regards to the Atlantic, they raised the question of what we really know about the other Gyres:

Much like in the Pacific, there is a North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre made up of four major currents – North Equatorial, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic, and Canary Current. There is also a North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ); however, while it has been predicted to concentrate debris, we currently know of no research on debris concentration within this STCZ or of the existence of a notable garbage patch. (see weblink)

The team is  now on a mission to bring to light the much larger issue across the world’s oceans. We will search out areas with higher than normal loads of garbage, as well as trawling a fine mesh net and analyzing the plastic content of the trawl. The floating plastic project will also include counting debris on beaches, counting and cataloging the types of plastics, and extrapolating the distance of the transect counted with the larger area of the coastline affected by the currents. With this we can estimate the amount of plastics covering the surface of our beaches.

Our artistic team, led by Maarten Vanden Eynde from the Netherlands has been on a parallel mission to highlight this problem through art. They were on board from Bermuda to the Azores and used the Sea Dragon as a way to directly collect debris from the open sea- and beaches of Bermuda and the Azores- that will now be incorporated into a massive debris sculpture. As they recreate the look of a giant coral reef purely with marine debris we can all begin to really understand the scale of the problem. The picture below is their recent catch from the Bermuda- Azores leg…scary. What is perhaps most concerning – and a relatively new perspective- is that ALL of our oceanic trawls from the USVI to Bermuda, to the Azores and then south to Cape Verde and Brazil carried plastic debris. This suggests that while the Gyres provide dramatic concentration mechanisms – the entire ocean may be carrying plastic debris. We also now see oceanic islands as earth-size nets that sieve out this debris – ironically possibly offering the only way to actually collect this debris.


Plastic Catch Bermuda:Azores- Maarten Vanden Eynde

NOAA is taking an increasing role in the issue through their Marine Debris Program. Their website has a good overview of the issue and restoration work (click here). There is also a new organization collecting plastic pellets from around the world’s beaches- International Pellet Watch. Another sailing organization, Sea Education Association (SEA) has been gathering plastics particles in the Pacific and Atlantic as well.