After seven hours of dragging a metal trawl in the ocean, we pulled the manta ray-looking contraption on board—salt water splashing everywhere—to see what was inside. We reached into the slimy net, flipped it inside out and dumped the contents onto a mesh screen.
Twelve crewmembers huddled over the debris, each straining their necks to see over the person in front of them. The sound of camera clicks intensified before we collectively muttered, "huh."
Right: Sara Close, development director for 5 Gyres, empties the trawl’s contents onto a mesh screen and uses seawater to flush out any fragments that stick to the net. The samples will be sent to 5 Gyres, who will process them for educational purposes.
We looked down at a nearly empty trawl. I was shocked at the lack of plastic and organic matter; it was hard to believe this sparse collection came from seven hours of sampling!
The mesh screen contained little water bugs called halibates, a nurdle (aka a pre-production plastic pellet), a myctophid, a janthina (a relative of the garden snail), pieces of fishing line, and tiny white, green and blue plastic fragments.
The total weight of the sample couldn't have been more than half an ounce. I was expecting to see much more trash, since I saw plastic nearly everyday while sampling the North Pacific Garbage Patch two years ago.
Left: A myctophid lies on the net, one eye facing skyward. On the left is a janthina, a type of sea snail whose shell resembles a lavender pearl. On the right is a pre-production plastic pellet also known as a mermaid’s tear. Tiny pieces of fishing line as well as white, blue and green plastic fragments are sprinkled on the screen.
But, as I mentioned in my last post, we’re outside the convergence zone where trash collects. We’re below the North Pacific Garbage Patch and above the South Pacific Garbage Patch by a few thousand miles.
Emily Penn, the ship’s first mate, wasn’t surprised at our meager haul. She said sampling halfway between Tahiti and Rarotonga can be an unlikely place to find garbage since any debris out here will eventually make its way toward one of the Pacific gyres.
And that’s why we trawled—to see if plastic saturates remote areas like French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. These samples, which will be sent to 5 Gyres, are part of the non-profit's campaign to collect and understand trash in the ocean. After collecting more than 300 samples from all 5 Gyres the group has designated certain samples, like those from our trip, as educational samples that will be available for school groups to study. 5 Gyres plans to analyze many of the samples by the end of the year and provide information about the density and types of plastic they found during their trawls.
I’m far from disappointed by what we found. It’s great to see so little pollution out here. I’m not fascinated by marine debris because I want to find trash in the ocean; I'm fascinated because I want to understand how it gets here. How is it that so many people don’t have access to running water or electricity and yet items like refrigerators or expensive Nike shoes, that could change people's lives, float freely in a vast oceanic wasteland?
About the Author: Lindsey Hoshaw is a freelance environmental journalist. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and Forbes, among others. In her spare time she moonlights as a garbologist studying people and the things they throw away. Follow her on Twitter @thegarbagegirl.
Editor’s note: The South Pacific Islands Survey is part of a larger multiyear expedition run by Pangaea Exploration, a nonprofit that investigates the health of marine life through exploration, conservation and educational outreach. The expedition focuses on marine debris, water quality, habitat conditions and overfishing in the world’s oceans. Specific emphasis is placed on the five gyres, or the five areas with the highest accumulation of plastic pollution.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.