First Evidence of Plastic in the South Pacific: Is This a Different Kind of Garbage Patch?


5 Gyres founders Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen pick up a fishing line floating in the middle of the South Pacific. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

No matter how much one has read or talked about plastic pollution in the oceans, the effect of seeing first-hand little pieces of plastic mixed with marine life or a yellow fishing line ruining a perfect view of the water nine hundred miles from the nearest coast is disturbing.The thought comes to mind as, a week after departing from Valdivia, Chile, with the 5 Gyres project to sail the South Pacific in search of plastic pollution, the first traces of this material are starting to appear.


The foam buoy and synthetic rope were degraded and full of barnacles and crabs mistaking it for a natural habitat. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

First, in the form of fragments of plastics and fishing nets in the samples taken from the trawls. Today, in the form of a fishing line floating in the middle of nowhere.

Even though these findings suggest that the South Pacific has not escaped the impact of marine plastic pollution, the fact that we're still finding small amounts of this petrol based material and not seeing so much debris floating around is also indicating that this part of the ocean may be in fact different from others explored by 5 Gyres.

According to Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, founders of the project, the trawls on this trip appear cleaner than the ones done in the previous expeditions to the North Pacific, North Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South Atlantic.

Although one may think that's a good thing, it doesn't really mean that the South Pacific is cleaner but that the currents in this part of the ocean create a tighter gyre and thus the garbage may be more concentrated. A study called Floating marine debris surface drift: Convergence and accumulation toward the South Pacific subtropical gyre [PDF] also suggests that this gyre is a closed loop, and that the garbage that enters it doesn't leave, which could be the cause of not seeing so much debris floating.

The definite answer on whether this is the case or if the garbage patch in the South Pacific is smaller than previous ones will come when we reach the center of the gyre in a couple of days.


One of the trawl samples, with an organism tangled in a fishing net fragment. Photo credit: Paula Alvarado

While the small fragments of plastic and fishing nets found in the trawl samples may not seem like a lot, it's important to remember we're talking about the findings in the tiny portion of the South Pacific that was trawled.

We're taking samples every 60 miles, trawling an hour at a time. The width of the trawl is 0.6 meters (about two feet) and each time it runs for about two nautical miles (12,000 feet), so we're roughly covering 22,000 sq. feet of the immense ocean each time. And still, evidence -even if small- of plastic is found in the samples.

As we continue our way to Easter Island, the crew is enjoying light blue sunny afternoons and nights so full of stars you can see their reflections in the water. To think this beauty is about to be interrupted by a garbage patch is depressing and even scary.

Stay tuned for more of our 5 Gyres adventure coming soon!

More from TreeHugger's voyage with 5 Gyres
Aboard with 5 Gyres in the South Pacific: The Trawling Begins
Tsunami Ruins, And Music With Impossible Nature Surroundings At Robinson Crusoe Island
On The Way To The (Possibly) Great South Pacific Garbage Patch
5 Gyres Founders Explain How Plastic Pollution in Oceans Really Works (Video)
TreeHugger Joins 5 Gyres To Sail The South Pacific In Search Of Plastic Pollution

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