Two years after their voyage to the North Pacific to study the plastic waste “garbage patch” known as the North Pacific Gyre, Santa Monica residents Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen have just returned from a new voyage to the North Atlantic, where a similar gyre of plastic waste is located.
Cummins and Eriksen, who were married last year while on a bicycle lecture tour in California, are working on the “5 Gyres Project” with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, Liveable Legacy, and Pangaea Explorations, to find out if plastic gyres exist in all of the world’s oceans, and what effect that has on marine life.
Leaving from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands on January 7, 2010, the couple crossed the Sargasso Sea, to Bermuda and on to the Azores, a trip of about 3000 miles. (There was a hurricane along with way, with waves three stories tall).
Cummins told the Mirror that she and her husband collected 35 samples, all of them containing “small fragments, broken-down particles like we’d seen in the North Pacific Ocean. What was interesting was that no matter where we dropped our trawls, anywhere in the North Atlantic Ocean, we found plastic.
“It’s really difficult to say where this stuff comes from. Where we found bigger pieces was on beaches. At St. Thomas and the Azores, we found larger pieces that we could identify—bottles, crates, toys, shoes, buckets. ”
But most of the plastic had broken down into fragments so small that they clung to the marine plant life that sea animals eat. “In the Sargasso Sea, there’s a plant called sargassum. It looks like seaweed. We would come across these patches of sargassum and we would find a garbage island, swatches of algae dotted with dozens of bottle caps.”
They also found plastic fragments containing bite marks from fish, a sign that animals are mistaking the plastic for something edible. Plastic is a petroleum product and studies have not yet yielded definite information about its effects on marine life and on humans who consume fish.
Cummins explained that the main thrust of 5 Gyres’ study is density-how much plastic is out there, where it is accumulating, and how it is getting into the food chain. For those concerned about the safety of eating seafood, she said, “We don’t tell people not to eat fish, but it is something to take into consideration.”
Cummins and Eriksen will soon be on the move again. At press time, they were leaving for New York to speak at the Museum of Natural History. Following that, they will be flying to Perth, Australia to cross the Indian Ocean and take samples to study its gyre.
Cummins is excited that this coming summer she and Eriksen will be staging a Youth Summit on plastic waste here in Los Angeles, with funding provided by Disney. They hope to assemble youth leaders from around the world to share ideas, present projects, and build a youth network.
Mirror Contributing Writerlynne@smmirror.com