What they found in the Pacific Gyre

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by Rebecca Bowe

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This jar contains the debris picked up by a manta trawler, a device that skims the surface of the ocean, in a single hour.

The tall ship Kaisei has returned from its month-long voyage to the plastic garbage vortex swirling through the North Pacific Gyre, and the preliminary findings of the ocean researchers are something of a wake-up call.

“We trawled thousands of miles, and we tested surface samples across the whole distance,” said Doug Woodring, cofounder of Project Kaisei, created in May of 2008 to study and address the growing problem of marine debris. “Every single sample came up with plastic.”

“We barely scratched the surface,” added Woodring, who was speaking at a press conference at San Francisco’s South Beach Harbor on Sept. 1.

Project Kaisei is a project of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a Sausalito-based nonprofit founded in 1979. The voyage was conducted in partnership with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, which sent a second research vessel, called the New Horizon, to collect samples of the marine debris for further study. The voyage was just the beginning of the mission, and now Scripps scientists have a good six months of lab analysis ahead to try and better understand the impact of plastic on the marine environment.

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The Kaisei (Japanese for "ocean planet") is a 151-foot brigantine with a steel hull, operated by the Ocean Voyages Institute.

Meanwhile, the anecdotal evidence provides a glimpse of the problem. “We could count in half an hour how many pieces of trash we could see,” said co-founder Mary T. Crowley. On a good stretch, Crowley said, they’d count around 25 pieces of marine debris. But in other areas, they’d see 300 to 400.

“You look across the ocean, and you still see this beautiful deep blue expanse of water,” Crowley said. “But if you look a little closer, you see the pieces of debris.”

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Mary T. Crowley, co-founder of Project Kaisei

The Pacific Gyre is a vast, naturally occurring ocean current northeast of Hawaii. The “plastic vortex,” or “great Pacific garbage patch,” as some have labeled it, refers to the churning refuse that’s pulled into the current, a junkyard-at-sea collectively created by people across the continents. Plastic bags, bottles, toys, and all manner of waste wind up in this remote section of the ocean. Project Kaisei founders say part of their mission is to educate the public to slow the accumulation of trash.

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This heap of junk has journeyed to the deep blue sea and back again.

Dr. Andrea Neal, the Project Kaisei Principal Investigator, noted that the problem has the potential for wide-reaching effects -- including an impact on human health. Neal noted that researchers had observed tiny jellyfish indiscriminately eating plastic shreds that were floating out at sea. Those creatures, in turn, are food by for fish that people eat, such as salmon. “These are the signs of the cancer called marine debris,” Neal said. “We’re seeing it in killer whales, we’re seeing it in marine mammals, and it won’t be long before we’re seeing it in ourselves.”