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[THE WIRE] The threat of micoplastics

Each day of  The Swim the crew cast a net off the side of the boat, not in the hopes of catching fish but to collect microplastics. When plastic enters our oceans, it doesn’t break down but rather breaks up into smaller fragments from the combination of exposure to the sun and waves. They’re a piece of plastic smaller than 5mm, and one of the biggest threats to our oceans.

One of the scientific protocols conducted on board Seeker is in partnership with 5 Gyres’s Trawl Share, to collect a database of micoplastic samples across the Pacific Ocean. Previous data collected from 5 Gyres Trawl Share helped to publish the first Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution and determined that 5.25 trillion particles of ‘plastic smog’ are polluting our oceans. That’s a total weight of 269,000 tons of pollution worldwide. Estimates currently show there are already more microplastic in the ocean then stars in the Milky Way.

‘What’s leading out to sea is all the single-use packaging, it’s the straws, the bottles, the cup lids, the stir sticks, all this junk that we use once and throw away. A plastic bottle used in California, will get to Japan in about 3-5 years and come back,’ Marcus Erikson from 5 Gyres told Seeker.

The Seeker crew trawl the neuston net for half an hour, collecting the micoplastic fragments that scientists on land will analyze. The data will also be made open to the public to help a number of scientists better understand the extent of the problem. ‘On average we find around 100 pieces every half an hour tow of the net we use to collect the samples’, Research Manager Tyral Dalitz said.

After 53.5 hours of net tows the Seeker crew collected 6728 pieces of micoplastic, that’s approximately 2 pieces per minute. ‘The worst we found was 600+ pieces and according to the concentration zones created by the scientists, we have not even been anywhere near the worst of it yet. That is a pretty heartbreaking thing to learn. Another reason why Ben’s swim is so important, it puts us in the conversation to help with awareness of such a serious problem’, Dalitz said.

The small pieces of plastic are commonly mistaken for food by marine life. ‘It is like an underwater smog of particles that have zero nutrition and zero benefits waiting to be eaten’, Research Manager Tyral Dalitz said.

But the threat of micoplastics is closer to home than many people realize. ‘Many fish have been found with plastic in their stomachs, quite often these fish starve to death before ever passing it through their guts. Creating the feeling of being full’, Dalitz said.

Micoplastics are also harming humans, with the traces of plastic ending up in the food chain. ‘These plastics are also very susceptible to absorbing toxic chemicals so effectively become like a toxic pill. Passing harmful chemicals up the food chain to us’, Dalitz said.

The debris is also colonized by a diverse microbial community. Scientists will analyze how this community contributes to global nutrient cycling, toxic chemical transport, food web interactions, plastic degradation, and the spread of organisms that may cause disease in marine life or humans as the particles migrate across the ocean.

‘There are other toxins that will be absorbed my the plastic and they will stay there. The plastic will be a carrier for the toxins, so it’s one other way to keep the toxins in our body, in the bloodstream.’ María Amenábar Cristi, Research Assistant said.

‘If it’s not enough to be worried about the damage on our oceans, at least we worry that we are being damaged’, said Amenábar Cristi.

The crew on board Seeker have seen an astonishing amount of evidence of the threat plastic is having on our oceans. The protocols and research will help scientists better understand the extent of the issue but is also hoping to inspire consumers to be aware of their single-use plastic consumption. ‘For me now the only thing I can think I we need to take action, as consumers,’ said Amenábar Cristi.

‘The ocean is in peril l right now, if we don’t do something that is going to reverse that in the next few years then it’s going to be much more difficult’, said Ben Lecomte.

Do your part to help our oceans by cutting out single-use plastic.

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