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Ship Logs

Plastics, the Quiet Killer of the Pacific Ocean
By Scott Kikiloi

Plastic is one of the most durable manmade materials on the planet. We all use plastic, from the cups we drink in, to the plastic bags we get at stores. But have you ever wondered where all that plastic goes? And does it break down? Charles J. Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation knows, and he says that it's showing up in our Pacific Ocean. Anchored offshore of Tern Island, in French Frigate Shoals is Moore's research vessel the Alguita. Moore, and a number of research scientists are discovering that an enormous amount of plastic is being swept around in the Pacific's currents. Plastic remains plastic, as these synthetic particles do not biodegrade. They do however break down slowly in the water, into smaller and smaller pieces until finally one large piece of plastic becomes thousands of smaller particles that disrupt our marine ecosystem. Located about 800 miles above Hawai`i is a place scientists call the North Pacific Gyre. A gyre is like the center of a swirling toilet bowl, where ocean debris collects. In his studies, Moore has found that in the Gyre 80% of the solid material in his samples were plastic, and only 20% was the ocean's natural plankton. The most common types of plastic found were parts of shopping bags and fast food bags.

Why does any of this matter? Well it matters because when the tides and currents change, the southern edge of the Gyre intersects the Hawaiian Islands. Our archipelago acts like a net and much of the larger debris shows up lodged in our coral reefs and on our beaches. French Frigate Shoals is a good example of this. These plastics are very dangerous because larger pieces abrade and break fragile reef corals and entangle marine life while smaller pieces are likely to be eaten by our native birds and marine life. Consumed pieces of plastic can physically damage the birds by occupying space in their digestive system causing them to starve to death. Likewise, turtles, and fishes eat these small pieces of plastic because they are unable to distinguish them from their food source. What is even more frightening is the fact that many plastics are toxic. They contain dangerous chemicals that can leach into the bodies of these animals. The smallest of plastic particles are eaten by ocean filter feeders, which eventually affect the entire food chain of a healthy marine ecosystem, as the filter feeders are eaten by bigger organisms, and so forth. As the toxics move up the food chain they will eventually end up in us, from the foods that we eat.

Every year, for the last five years the National Marine Fisheries Service has spearheaded a multiagency marine debris cleanup in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and not including this years (2002) cleanup they have removed more than 130 tons of marine debris. NMFS is also very active in researching ways to cut debris off at its source and using modeling programs to track where the debris comes from and how to prevent it.

As you can see, plastic is a quiet killer of our marine ecosystem. We need to be responsible for the plastics we produce, and keep them out of our ocean waters.

For more information on the National Marine Fisheries Marine Debris Cleanup efforts, visit their website:

For more information on the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, contact:
Algalita Marine Research Foundation
345 Bay Shore Avenue, Long Beach CA 90803, USA

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