5 Gyres Partnerships Fostering Pioneering Studies On Plastics And Phytoplankton


Crew members Gary Baghdasarian and his wife Sara Bayless preparing their equipment. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

One of the most interesting things from our trip with the 5 Gyres Institute through the South Pacific is the variety of interesting people on board: from artists to scientists to filmmakers to adventurers with their own projects and goals for the voyage, there's enough conversation in this boat to keep you entertained for months.
Garen Baghdasarian on board of the 5 Gyres expedition. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

Among the crew members is Garen Baghdasarian, a professor of Marine Biology at Santa Monica College who's received a PhD in Biology studying coral bleaching who's collaborating with 5 Gyres carrying out a study to find out if there's a relationship between plastic pollution and the decrease in the levels of phytoplankton in the ocean.

According to recent studies, from 1950 to 2010 there has been a 40 percent decrease in the levels of global phytoplankton, a basic component of marine life. The study attributed this to global warming and rising water temperatures, but Mr. Baghdasarian thinks there's something else.

"Global warming is probably one of the causes, but I certainly think it's not the only one and certainly not on a global level. While extreme changes in temperature may decrease photosynthesis and phytoplankton reproduction, slighter temperature increase may actually improve photosynthesis," he explains.

Considering that the 1950s were the time when great production of disposable products began and taking into account the current levels of plastic pollution in the ocean, he thought that the presence of this material in the water may have something to do with this.

So in collaboration with 5 Gyres, he's measuring the levels of chlorophyll in the water in the same areas that the project is measuring presence of plastic to see if there's a correlation. He's also measuring other variables like salinity, pH, nutrients, etc., to be able to determine which factors may be affecting phytoplankton.

Mr. Baghdasarian is one of a series of scientists who are collaborating with 5 Gyres to find out more about how plastics affect the oceans and our health.

As we mentioned in a previous post, another scientist called Chelsea Rochman is studying the effects of plastics in small fish by observing if toxins from this material accumulate in their tissues after they are ingested. A scientist from the UN Safe Planet campaign called Anna Rotander took part in a previous trip measuring the presence of fluorinated chemicals in the water. And 5 Gyres also has partnerships with the Algalita Foundation and the UN Safe Planet campaign to collaborate in research.

Although the program for future expeditions has not been determined yet, if you want to collaborate with 5 Gyres in research or join a trip, contact the institute through their website.

Meanwhile, the weather is gentle on the crew spending our tenth day on board of the Sea Dragon on our way to the South Pacific gyre. Samples taken from the water continue to show plastic presence, though in smaller concentrations than the one observed in previous gyres. The real deal will come in a few days, when we reach the center of the gyre and get the answer we came looking for: is there a South Pacific garbage patch?

More from TreeHugger's voyage with 5 Gyres
Ocean Plastics In Our Food Chain: The Importance Of Lantern Fish And Night Trawling
First Evidence of Plastic in the South Pacific: Is This a Different Kind of Garbage Patch?
Aboard with 5 Gyres in the South Pacific: The Trawling Begins
On The Way To The (Possibly) Great South Pacific Garbage Patch
5 Gyres Founders Explain How Plastic Pollution in Oceans Really Works (Video)

Tags: 5 gyres

Best of TreeHugger