My Ocean Planet

My Ocean Planet

I have been a sailor most of my life. At age four I began sailing with my father and grandfather in their small sloop on Lake Michigan. On family trips from Chicago to the East Coast, boats were always a centerpiece of our activities. I remember these trips with great fondness. I was immediately attracted to the ocean and sensed it would be an important part of my life.

In my high school yearbook people predicted that I would be a sea captain. My love for sailing and the ocean was already clear. After I finished college I headed for San Francisco, Calif., and began doing boat deliveries around the Pacific Ocean. My love of the ocean — the blue heart of the planet as it is sometimes called — is one of the great joys of my life.

In recent years, stories about marine debris and plastic pollution made their way into the news. I also began to hear more reports from fellow sailors about diverse locations where they came upon regions filled with floating plastic debris. Some people describe a floating plastic island twice the size of the state of Texas. These descriptions, while not totally accurate, are attempts to give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

Responsibility for oceans

In 2008, two colleagues and I established Project Kaisei as part of Ocean Voyages Institute. We focus on solutions to the plastic pollution problem, a problem that has grown over the past 50 years. At Project Kaisei we believe in the need to stop the flow of plastic debris into the global ocean. We also believe that ocean cleanup is possible and vital. It’s our job to help the ocean ecosystem recover its original clean and healthy state.

In August 2009, I sailed to the mid-Pacific aboard the 151-foot brigantine, KAISEI, which means Ocean Planet in Japanese. KAISEI served as a research vessel for a team of scientists, filmmakers and environmentalists. NEW HORIZON, another vessel operated by Scripps Institute of Oceanography, also conducted scientific research with Project Kaisei. During our month at sea we collected water samples, plastic debris, and recorded and assessed the extent of the problem. Because this is a problem of global scale we are building coalitions with people, organizations and governments who want to join us in taking responsibility for the oceans.

The North Pacific Gyre is a high-pressure zone in the central North Pacific Ocean. This area is characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of suspended plastic and other debris from North America and Asia. It represents a massive environmental challenge.

As we sailed out beneath the Golden Gate Bridge last summer the expedition team had a sense of exhilaration and anticipation. We were approximately 400 miles off the coast when we did our first manta trawl — sampling the ocean surface with a net. We thought we would find baseline, clean ocean waters. Instead we found plastic. We ended up finding plastic in every surface-level oceanographic trawl we did during the entire expedition. We entered areas of more accumulated garbage approximately 600 miles off the coast.

Throughout the voyage we did watches to count the amount of floating debris that could be spotted from the ship’s bow in 30-minute intervals. Dependent on the area, counts totaled anywhere from 25 to 400 pieces of plastic debris. Day and night we voyaged through this region observing debris.

We encountered ghost nets, which are composed of derelict fishing gear that rolls over one net capturing another net. Ghost nets capture sea life along with plastic containers and items of every type imaginable, including toys, toothbrushes, garden chairs, water bottles and detergent bottles. In addition we observed floating pieces of plastic debris and small pieces of plastic (known as confetti) day after day.

Our scientific team, headed by Dr. Andrea Neal and Dr. Michael Gonsior, included Dr. Margy Gassel from the California Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. Our team studied the toxicity of the plastics and myctophids (Lantern Fish). The Lantern Fish’s standard diet is plankton, but now they also eat plastic pieces and ingest toxins. As we observed and studied marine debris, everyone began to feel the magnitude of the problem.

Halfway through our journey I wrote in my journal about being in the water in one of our inflatables. Norton Smith and his niece Melanie Smith were deploying and testing some of our passive collection devices.

“We snorkeled around the collection devices to see how well they were working,” I wrote. “Imagine swimming with 17,000 feet of deep, blue ocean beneath you and a square-rigged ship on the horizon. We were three people, midocean, aboard a dinghy, monitoring innovative cleanup designs that made a clean sweep of the water around us. What an extraordinary mission!”

Global understanding

Plastic is forever. Every piece of plastic ever made is still with us. Plastic toys, plates and bottle caps can last for centuries. When I am interviewed about the Gyre, people ask me, “How many tons of plastic are out there?” I truthfully say, “I have no idea.” In Sylvia Earle’s book Sea Change, she wrote, “More than 20 billion pounds of plastic goods were produced in the United States in 1970. Twenty years later the volume increased more than three-fold, reflecting an increasing dependence on these attractive materials.”

Now calculate the combined production of plastic goods in Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands, and consider the billions of pounds of plastics that have accumulated over 40 years from 1970 to 2010. Where has all this plastic gone?

The ocean is the blue heart of our planet. The oceans, once brimming with life, are no longer a healthy ecosystem. We need to initiate change, and quickly. And by we I mean individuals, communities, companies and countries. We need to change our behaviors and enforce national and international laws to preserve our oceans. We need to do our best to clean up existing debris and prevent further flow of debris into the global ocean.

Ms. Earle, my friend and colleague of more than 30 years, is a scientist, explorer, diver, oceanographer, former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and serves on the advisory board of Project Kaisei. She wrote passionately about the essential link between our destiny and that of the sea:

“But, if I had to name the single most frightening and dangerous threat to the health of the ocean, the one that stands alone, yet is at the base of all the others, it is ignorance: lack of understanding, a failure to relate our destiny to that of the sea, or to make connections between the health of coral reefs and our own health, between the fate of the great whales and the future of humankind.”

I had the privilege to voyage on a tall ship to the gyre to see firsthand the burden of marine debris and plastic pollution evident in our oceanic wilderness, and I am working to increase global understanding of this issue. Education is an important element of our mission. We want people to understand the situation as it is now and to help bring about the necessary change.

Awareness and action, this is what is needed. We live in a time where nearly every problem has a solution. The question is, Are we ready to make it a priority to protect 72 percent of the planet — because that is the size of our blue heart — the global ocean?

Project Kaisei and its collaborators around the world believe now is the time for action. I am proud of Project Kaisei’s mission to preserve the ocean for future generations. Small changes can make a big difference.

Mary Crowley founded Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI) in 1979. In May 2008, she established Project Kaisei as an OVI initiative. Project Kaisei’s mission is increase global understanding of the issues of plastic pollution, reduce the flow of plastics into the ocean, clean up existing plastics, and collaborate with others to devise workable solutions.

Posted or updated: 4/30/2010 11:00:00 PM
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