Sailing to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Tomorrow, I set sail aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans (a 135-ft brigantine sailing vessel, pictured below), bound for ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. On this timely expedition, I will be working alongside an eclectic group of scientists, educators, outreach coordinators, jounralists and sailors, all with the same simple goal in mind: collect data that allow us to better understand the effects of plastic pollution on our world’s oceans.

I will be leading an effort to use the macro debris (i.e., large pieces of plastic–bigger than your finger nail) we encounter to test one of the most fundamental theories in ecology: the Equilibrium Theory of Island Biogeography. This theory posits simply that species diversity will increase with island size and will decrease with island isolation (from the mainland and other islands). In this case, I we will test this theory using floating chunks of plastic as mobile “islands”, noting their size and position and counting all of the critters we find on them. Though the approach is simple enough, the conservation implications of this work remain extensive: By showing that rafting community diversity on plastic debris increases with increasing plastic island size and isolation, this work would suggest that the larger the pieces and the higher the quantity of plastic we deposit into the sea, the more likely this act will contribute to species invasions into coastal ecosystems around the world. When foreign species invade a new ecosystem, the system is often not prepared to deal with the new species–for example, local predators may not be adapted to eat it. This can lead to explosive population booms of invading organisms and the associated devastation of local organisms and the ecosystem as a whole. This project is one of many aboard the Seamans on this timely expedition–needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us!

Though I will be unable to update this blog during our 37 days at sea, from October 3rd to November 9th, we have a very snazzy expedition website, which will be updated frequently in real time, with exciting finds from the middle of the Pacific Ocean! Please check it out here:

http://www.sea.edu/plastics/

We are also getting weekly coverage by National Geographic here: http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/

I look forward to a productive adventure. Thanks for reading!

Mike

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