SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Researchers are warning of a new blight at
sea: a swirl of confetti-like plastic debris stretching over a remote
expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
The floating garbage — hard to
spot from the surface and spun together by a vortex of currents — was
documented by two groups of scientists who trawled the sea between
scenic Bermuda and Portugal's mid-Atlantic Azores islands.
studies describe a soup of micro-particles similar to the so-called
Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a phenomenon discovered a decade ago
between Hawaii and California that researchers say is likely to exist
in other places around the globe.
"We found the great Atlantic garbage patch," said Anna Cummins, who collected plastic samples on a sailing voyage in February.
debris is harmful for fish, sea mammals — and at the top of the food
chain, potentially humans — even though much of the plastic has broken
into such tiny pieces they are nearly invisible.
Since there is
no realistic way of cleaning the oceans, advocates say the key is to
keep more plastic out by raising awareness and, wherever possible,
challenging a throwaway culture that uses non-biodegradable materials
for disposable products.
"Our job now is to let people know that
plastic ocean pollution is a global problem — it unfortunately is not
confined to a single patch," Cummins said.
The research teams
presented their findings in February at the 2010 Oceans Sciences
Meeting in Portland, Oregon. While scientists have reported finding
plastic in parts of the Atlantic since the 1970s, the researchers say
they have taken important steps toward mapping the extent of the
Cummins and her husband, Marcus Eriksen, of Santa
Monica, California, sailed across the Atlantic for their research
project. They plan similar studies in the South Atlantic in November
and the South Pacific next spring.
On the voyage from Bermuda to
the Azores, they crossed the Sargasso Sea, an area bounded by ocean
currents including the Gulf Stream. They took samples every 100 miles
(160 kilometers) with one interruption caused by a major storm. Each
time they pulled up the trawl, it was full of plastic.
study by undergraduates with the Woods Hole, Massachusetts-based Sea
Education Association collected more than 6,000 samples on trips
between Canada and the Caribbean over two decades. The lead
investigator, Kara Lavendar Law, said they found the highest
concentrations of plastics between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, an
offshore patch equivalent to the area between roughly Cuba and
Long trails of seaweed, mixed with bottles,
crates and other flotsam, drift in the still waters of the area, known
as the North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone. Cummins' team even
netted a Trigger fish trapped alive inside a plastic bucket.
the most nettlesome trash is nearly invisible: countless specks of
plastic, often smaller than pencil erasers, suspended near the surface
of the deep blue Atlantic.
"It's shocking to see it firsthand,"
Cummins said. "Nothing compares to being out there. We've managed to
leave our footprint really everywhere."
Still more data are needed to assess the dimensions of the North Atlantic patch.
Moore, an ocean researcher credited with discovering the Pacific
garbage patch in 1997, said the Atlantic undoubtedly has comparable
amounts of plastic. The east coast of the United States has more people
and more rivers to funnel garbage into the sea. But since the Atlantic
is stormier, debris there likely is more diffuse, he said.
the difference between the two regions, plastics are devastating the
environment across the world, said Moore, whose Algalita Marine
Research Foundation based in Long Beach, California, was among the
sponsors for Cummins and Eriksen.
"Humanity's plastic footprint is probably more dangerous than its carbon footprint," he said.
have entangled birds and turned up in the bellies of fish: A paper
cited by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says
as many as 100,000 marine mammals could die trash-related deaths each
The plastic bits, which can be impossible for fish to
distinguish from plankton, are dangerous in part because they sponge up
potentially harmful chemicals that are also circulating in the ocean,
said Jacqueline Savitz, a marine scientist at Oceana, an ocean
conservation group based in Washington.
As much as 80 percent of marine debris comes from land, according to the United Nations Environmental Program.
The U.S. government is concerned the pollution could hurt its vital interests.
plastic has the potential to impact our resources and impact our
economy," said Lisa DiPinto, acting director of NOAA's marine debris
program. "It's great to raise awareness so the public can see the
plastics we use can eventually land in the ocean."
the federal agency is co-sponsoring a new voyage this summer by the Sea
Education Association to measure plastic pollution southeast of
Bermuda. NOAA is also involved in research on the Pacific patch.
the kinds of things we use plastic for are the kinds of things we don't
dispose of carefully," Savitz said. "We've got to use less of it, and
if we're going to use it, we have to make sure we dispose of it well."