Fishing for plastic

Project Kaisei hopes to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Project Kaisei pulls up trash from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a continent-sized mass of environmental nightmare

GREEN ISSUE For the past two summers, scientists and environmentalists with Project Kaisei, a Sausalito nonprofit focused on increasing public awareness of marine debris, have sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge to survey trash in the North Pacific gyre.

A gyre is a naturally occurring system of rotating currents in the ocean that is normally avoided by sailors because of its light winds. The North Pacific Gyre is the largest of the five major oceanic gyres in the world, and the one with the biggest known accumulation of trash, most of which is plastic. Some folks call this vortex the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But Project Kaisei founder Mary Crowley calls the vortex "the eighth continent" to convey its size and impact.

Now, as Project Kaisei prepares for its 2011 expedition, which will likely take place in June — depending on funding, marine conditions, and equipment collection — team members are taking the next steps in the project's mission to capture the plastic in the gyre. These steps include testing for efficient ways to clean up trash mid-ocean and exploring if some captured plastic can be turned into liquid fuel to power future clean-ups.

"We'll be focusing on testing marine debris collection equipment, doing some clean-up, further recording what's out there, and working with ocean current experts. But we need good sponsorship," Crowley said. "Down the line, we're looking to have a recycling plant on deck with smaller vessels feeding it so we can do clean-ups mid-ocean. And we're going to recycle. It's not going to end up in a dump with plastic blowing back into the ocean."

Crowley believes unemployed fishermen should be paid to clean up the gyres. "And we should start in our own towns and states and countries," she said. "We need to produce a solution locally to take effect globally. Part of the response has to come from multinational corporations that are selling stuff throughout world. It's shocking to me that 90 percent of our pelagic fish are gone and we've killed 50 percent of the corral reefs."

Project Kaisei's preparations are taking place in the wake of a tsunami that devastated Japan in March, sucking a big pulse of debris into the ocean and crippling four nuclear reactors that continue to leak radiation into the water, raising fears of damage to sea life.

Experts predict that some of the debris from the tsunami will eventually wash up on beaches in Hawaii and California, but Crowley doubts the state will be affected radiologically. "The majority [of the debris] got whooshed out by the tsunami before the leaks began," she explained.

She says that at a marine debris conference in Honolulu shortly after the tsunami, attendees expressed concern about "land-sourced" debris — trash that flows into the ocean by way of rivers and streams or is dumped directly into the ocean from ships.

"People said that in recent years there's also been all this debris from natural disasters, including tsunamis," Crowley noted. "Well, I see debris from natural disasters as all the more reason to develop effective ways to get trash out of the ocean."

But Captain Charles Moore, who founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in 1994 to restore disappearing kelp forests and wetlands along the California coast, thinks a moratorium on plastic production would make the most sense.

Moore's focus shifted in 1997, when he encountered trash, mostly plastic, scattered across the North Pacific Gyre, and subsequent studies by his foundation claim that trash outweighs zooplankton in the gyre by a factor of six to one.

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