A whale breaches a mile away, blowing just below the surface before descending back to the depths, rolling forward raising its tail flukes then repeating the performance as we part-company. As we continue our research mission heading for Ascension Island, the whale continues his life living and feeding in our oceans. Lying mid-Atlantic five hundred nautical miles below the equator, Ascension, like all shores, acts like a sieve catching passing marine debris, wildlife and historically, mariners. We wait to see what history lies at Ascension, naval, maritime, natural … manmade.
We still have over a thousand miles to go, approximately half-way now from Rio on our northern transect of the South Atlantic Gyre and the evidence found in the North Pacific and Atlantic Gyres appears to be here too. Every trawl yielding plastics, floating waste drifting past daily, another ocean subject to the harmful effects of our global plastic habit.
Mid-ocean we retrieve another trawl, a three-hundred micron ocean sieve collecting everything in the water in a sixty centimeter wide swath across the surface. Plastic particulate broken down by UV and mechanical wave action is ever present in these trawls, evidence of our negative impact on the oceans. Sieved out and collected by our scientific trawl, the necessary evidence to build models of our plastic legacy, it also collects on distant shores and tragically is consumed by sea-life.
Many fish, mostly less then 5cm in length are captured in the same trawl mainly at night when they come up from a thousand feet or more to feed. They, along with the plastics will be preserved and analysed in the laboratory. Historical evidence is compelling; in the north Pacific Gyre of 671 samples collected in 2008 35% had plastics in their stomach. Plastics absorb toxins, including POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) many are banned by the UN due to the risk they pose to human health, as well as attracting other similar oil based products, a toxic soup in our oceans. You would not want it in your food and yet the evidence is that it is entering our food chain.
Our whale swims on sieving the ocean to feed, filtering the ocean contents; plankton, seaweed and plastics feeding on them all. There are solutions spoken about for capturing plastic ocean waste and returning it to our shores, green-washing when you consider the size of the issue; 72% of the worlds surface to ‘clean-up’, home to more than 90% of all living things 45,000 particles per square mile. It would be like standing on top of a skyscraper with a vacuum trying to remove airborne pollution from a city. The truth is, what is in the ocean will largely remain there all we can do is prevent the issue from growing; ensure that we close the loop on plastic and all that escapes the loop is bio-plastic. Reign in our insatiable consumption of plastics and value it as a commodity.