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The plastic sea

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


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it all over

@Green Toe - plastic bags are still very much an issue. Turtles mistake them for jellyfish prey and consumption can lead to death. The reason plastic bags may not be widely observed in the water column may be that such thin material is quickly made brittle by UV rays from the sun. The plastic then breaks up to smaller pieces, which are even more easily consumed by organisms, and can be subject to bioaccumulation up food chains.

For years we have been told how we needed to ban or tax plastic bags because they were filling up this gyre. Once the group returned and reported what was out there it seems that it is full of everything but bags. Did we miss the target all of these years.

Our waterways are home to often-fragile ecosystems not to mention important to our own survival. We should use them and treat them that way. We may forget that at times. While we are out on the water we should be both considerate and safe. California’s Department of Boating and Waterways has some good information on how to be safe and use our waterways resourcefully. Visit them at:

I think that the EPA should look at the feasibility of "harvesting" this plastic at sea for recycling with large barges and special collection units. Perhaps a modified seaweed harvester could collect this garbage, compress it and take it to shore for reuse.

Think twice before you drop a plastic cup or any kind of plastic in the street. You may think it won't end up in the Ocean but it can and does via storm drains.

Sunlight causes plastic to break up into smaller and smaller pieces, but it cannot biodegrade for hunderds or thousands of years. Those pieces get ingested by small creatures that are eating by larger ones that die because they cannot digest it. The impact is enormous and deadly.

So sad. Such a comment on how dirty a species we are. Unless we get our act together fast it will be a miracle if we survive at all.


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