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The plastic sea

August 27, 2009 |  2:25 pm

Siocomm_R_SEAPLEX-09-642 It can be hard to find what you're looking for in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But scientists on an August research cruise had no problem tracking down their subject.

“We did observe a lot of plastic out there in the ocean about 1,000 miles from anything" said Miriam Goldstein, chief scientist on the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX). "It's pretty shocking."

A group of doctoral students and research volunteers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and Project Kaisei spent nearly three weeks on the research vessel New Horizon taking samples and exploring the plastic garbage patch floating in the North Pacific.

Over the next several months they will analyze samples to learn more about its toxicity and how it affects ocean life and food webs. Are invasive species getting a ride on the plastic? To what degree is the plastic interfering with ocean feeding?

Most of the plastic the ship encountered was small -- about the size of a thumbnail -- floating beneath the surface, Goldstein said.

There was no big, ugly floating landfill. But larger items like buckets and bottles drifted by the ship.

For more on the ocean's plastic plague, see The Times' Altered Oceans series.

-- Bettina Boxall

Photo: A North Pacific Ocean sample collected Aug. 10 contained small velella and lots of plastic. Credit: J. Leichter / SEAPLEX