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Research Vessel Studies Plastic Pollution in Pacific

July 19, 2012 - Trisha Smith
The culmination of an over 7,000-mile journey across the ocean to explore the North Pacific Gyre and the material swept out to sea by the 2011 Tsunami was recently celebrated by the arrival of the "Sea Dragon" research vessel in Hawai’i.

Although the 72-foot sailing vessel, the Sea Dragon, was unable to make it to Maui as originally planned, expedition debriefing discussions were held on Sunday, July 8, in the conference room at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS), presented by the Maui Ocean Center (MOC) and the Maui County Environmental Department.

Look out for this week's Maui Weekly on the vessel's unexpected arrival on O'ahu instead of Maui, and some information regarding Leg 2 of the journey in an article called "Expedition Documents Debris and Plastic Pollution."

The expedition was made possible by the caring collaborative efforts of Algalita Marine Research Institute, 5 Gyres Institute, and Pangaea Exploration. The Maui Ocean Center had been planning for nearly a year for its arrival on Maui, but due to unforeseen circumstances such as wild weather and low supplies, the Sea Dragon docked in Honolulu. MOC reps were sad to cancel events, but happy to share the vital information from the expedition, and were able to welcome four of its crewmembers to the July 8 event, fresh off the plane from O'ahu.

As many of us sound-minded individuals do, these organizations involved envision a global environment that is free of plastic pollution. But, are we too late? Have we created such a monster of plastic potency that our oceans are becoming a "dead zone of trash accumulation" that continue to endanger ocean species beyond our control?

During the recent debriefing on July 8 on Maui, I was presented with an impressive pile of research and information regarding these groups' recent journeys to study marine debris and study the plastics in our ocean environment, including the effects it's having on our precious sea life.

I was actually somewhat bothered that I had not heard before about these expeditions, or the Kaho'olawe cleanups and Zurich trash installation some of our green heroes were involved in. I read news every day, and follow a variety of isle projects very closely, especially environmental concerns and ocean awareness organizations.

Then, I realized why I may have not heard much of the recent great work from groups like Algalita, 5 Gyres and representatives from eco-conscious island organizations such as Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, etc. They expose the harsh truth behind our terrible habits and use of plastics. No one wants to think of paradise as a dumpster for some of the world's plastics, or that our visitors would litter our beaches and oceans with waste.

Humans, not a heart-breaking natural disaster that took place off the coasts of Japan last year, but us, people, are the ones that are villains. A plastic, single-use society. We must change the waves of knowledge. Really evaluate our plastic usage, and reuse when possible. Recycling is not going to save us, as one crewmembers aboard the Sea Dragon said, and I believe him.

The first leg of the research vessel traveled from the Marshall Islands to Tokyo, Japan in May, and aside from collecting a variety of debris in the Pacific, they hoped to learn more about the micro- and macro-communities of organisms attached to plastic in the gyres. To learn more about this incredible trip, including vital information shared by crew members Cynthia Matzke, a marine biologist and director of Trilogy’s Blue ‘Aina Campaign on Maui, and marine ecologist Dr. Hank Carson of the University of Hawai‘i, visit the expedition links below, and tune in to “The Weekly Dish” radio show this Friday morning at 7 a.m. on KAOI 1110Am&96.7Fm, as we welcome the evening's moderator, Rob Parsons, Maui County's executive assistant for environmental concerns.

"The great thing about this movement is that there is something we can all do about it," said Stuart Coleman, Surfrider Foundation's head field coordinator in Hawai'i.

This inspiration was uttered by Coleman in the exceptional Hawai'i documentary, "Changing Tides." During July 8's presentations at the whale sanctuary, attendees were also able to view the compelling short film which made waves at this summer Maui Film Festival. I realized already much of what the film presented, but it still gave me chills to see the littered beaches and the animals that are eating plastics.

The Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM), Positive H2O (+H2O) and Surfrider Foundation joined forces with award-winning filmmaker Danny Miller to produce this documentary, "Changing Tides." (View trailer below via YouTube link.)

Information from the site:

"This 15-minute film will bring the issue of oceanic garbage into the public dialogue, where ideas are formed and solutions proposed. The engaging story is told through the eyes of Hawaiian kapuna and professional watermen, scientist and volunteers who share their passion for the ocean and what they are doing to protect it. Their stories bring us an in-depth look at oceanic garbage in the Pacific, and what it means for residents of Hawai'i and other Pacific islands impacted by the waste.

'Changing Tides' dispels the myths and demonstrates the real dangers of the Northern Pacific Garbage Patch... Hawai'i is uniquely poised to tell the story of the floating trash. It is the most remote land mass on Earth, the land mass closest to the North Pacific Gyre, and the first land mass to start seeing the effects of the world's debris." (For more information go to: and

The patch is also known as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, and is often misunderstood to be an enormous area of debris floating together, like an island of trash, but that’s just not true, according to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In reality, “pre-tsunami plastic” and other debris is spread widely across the gyre, with most of it in variable stages of photodegradation. (Learn more at

We're all looking forward to hearing what the samples from the 2012 Asia Pacific Research Expedition will teach the world, as scientists study the effects of the plastic pollution and marine debris on marine life's habitats and its ability to transport invasive species from one continent to another, as well as the rates of decomposition of debris, and more.

For now, do our environment a favor and evaluate the single-use items and plastics infecting your life each day. (Eliminating plastic water bottles is a good start.) Make some changes. Do the right thing. It's easier than you may think to have an effect on a global level. Many may say one person can't change the world, but each of us has a responsibility to the Earth and its ecosystems. You make more of a difference than you realize. Be a part of the solution.

Stay tuned for more information in this blog from Leg 1 of the Sea Dragon...


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Dr. Hank Carson joined the discussion at the whale sanctuary on Sunday, July 8, and revealed some of his research experience during Leg 1 of the Sea Dragon expedition. Photo: Ananda Stone


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