Plastics at SEA – North Atlantic Expedition

Over the past few years, the issue of marine plastic debris has been increasingly on the radar.   The Sea Education Association (SEA), is currently in the midst of a research cruise focusing on the plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic ocean.  SEA has been collecting data on plastics in the Atlantic for the past 25 years, resulting in an extensive data set.  The current voyage is about 15 days in and has counted more than 41,000 plastic pieces.  In some places scientists onboard estimated plastic density of 500,000 pieces per square kilometer.  Many of the neuston tows have pulled in so many miniscule pieces that it is impossible to count them all.

What makes this even more impressive is that the research is all conducted from a 134-foot brigantine-rigged sailing research vessel, the SSV Corwith Cramer.  One great benefit of using a sailing vessel is the great efficiency in diesel consumption in comparison with typical power driven research vessels.  Also unlike many research vessels,  everyone on board is actively involved in not only scientific research, but almost everything on the ship, 24/7.  Sail evolutions, steering, navigating, night look-out, cleaning, maintenance…the list goes on and on.  This results in a huge learning experience for all involved, the formation of a close-knit community, and many interesting stories.  For us stranded on land, a major perk of this trip is being able to follow SSV Corwith Cramer online.  The site is updated on a daily basis, complete with photos, written passages about shipboard life and the current scientific discoveries, and sometimes even video footage!  I am fortunate enough to have participated in a SEA Semester, Class S-226, this past Fall in the Pacific Ocean and following the plastic expedition has made me especially nostalgic for my shipmates and life at sea.  The site is chock-full of tons of interesting information involving plastics research and life on the high seas.  I encourage you to check it out here and spread the word!

Here is one particularly eye-opening image from the lab of the Cramer.  A group of Triggerfish was lured away from the protection of the reef by following a five gallon bucket.  This is the stomach of one of those fish.  It contained 47 plastic pieces.

Plastic debris taken from the stomach of a triggerfish caught in a neuston tow. (Leslie Peate)

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