Project Update on Investigating Marine Plastics: Findings from an Atlantic Voyage

By Marine plastics Atlantic Voyage

It has been two months and the ship has now crossed much of the Southern and part of the Northern Atlantic. We were supposed to finish up our research and get off at the Azores but I am very happy to announce that we will continue the research all the way to Stavanger! This means that we are able to take samples of the entire Atlantic ocean – all the way from the South to the North!

Our last update was from when we were about to embark from Cape Town. Since then, we have trawled many times, with very different results in the different seas and currents we encountered. We found that the quantities of plastics present in the South Atlantic are few, but stable and were quite disconcerted to find so many plastics in all trawls even in one of the ‘cleanest’ oceans on earth.

Sailing in the South Equatorial current we were able to gather enough to get a picture of the abundances in the area and saw a decreasing amount of plastics as we headed farther north, and out of the South Atlantic Gyre. We reached the Doldrums a few degrees north of the equator, where the weak winds gave us ample opportunities to sample. The Equatorial Counter Current was almost as empty of plastic as it was of wind. Our trawls from there turned up very few or no pieces of plastic. This current separates the North and South Atlantic Gyres, flowing against and between the North and South Equatorial currents.

Plastic quickly reappeared as soon as we entered the North Equatorial Current, the southern limb of the North Atlantic Gyre. A single glance in the net was enough for us to realise we’d far exceeded the quantities of plastic from any previous trawl. With over 140 individual pieces we’d either entered a new area of the ocean or a particularly plastic-abundant gyre. The next day our sample contained over 300 individual pieces. With a third and fourth sample collecting double the amount of the day before, until we reached an astonishing number of 1500 pieces, we can comfortably state that the contrast in plastic quantity tells us without the aid of a chart that we have entered a new region of the ocean: the North Atlantic Gyre, with its debris coming from the European and American coast, and so an increase of marine industrial activity.

It is in these oceans, that a ‘plastic soup’ of microplastics have been discovered by the Ocean Cleanup. It seemed we were going just through that; there were several clear days where you could just look into the water and see numerous small fragments floating by. Our plastic observation team was forced to make estimates, because it was impossible to keep count. These days were also the days that we saw a great many large objects floating by. Every time we looked out, there was an object to be found. We saw pieces of Styrofoam, fishing crates, a shoe even, buckets, jerrycans, nets… Much of it seemed to come from other (fishing/cargo) ships. The abundancy of plastics was also visible on the beaches of Horta (Azores), where a large amount of plastics is visible (even sometimes in the water, I just picked up a plastic bag while swimming) on the beaches.

Although research shows that there is a lot of damage already done in the North Atlantic regarding plastic pollution, the reactions to our research and seeing that so many people were so supportive and motivated to contribute in their own way is extremely encouraging.

We are delighted  with the overall research results and most especially with all the involvement of everyone and are positive that together we can make a change!

What will happen next is that we will take our samples to the lab for analysis – what types of plastics did we find? – and see if we can trace found plastics back to producing industries. This will provide the basis for greater research where we will look at how the producing side of society can contribute to limiting the amount of debris coming from their products. We believe that together with an increasing awareness on the consumer side, there is a need and a market for products that are produced and encouraged to be disposed responsibly and that a large part of the solution can be found there!

At the moment the Europa is participating in the tall ship races: a race of about 60 tall ships going from Stavanger, Norway to Harlingen, The Netherlands. It will participate in Harlingen Sail and will be open for visitors on the 4th and 5th of August. We will be giving small presentations on our research and it is possible to book a tour around the ship. An extended talk on the research will also be given when the ship has arrived back in its home port Scheveningen, The Netherlands. This will take place on the 2nd of September. Would you like to come? Please contact Lise: lise.alkema@wur.nl

For now, we thank you for your support and hope you will continue to help fight plastic pollution! If you are interested in more detailed updates of our project: please follow our facebook page https://www.facebook.com/PlasticResearchBarkEuropa/. We expect our first report about the results and analysis of our samples to be ready this fall and we will of course send this to you. Also, look out for our video, soon to be edited and published!

You’ll hear from us again!

Bark Europa Science Team

Ps. Do you also want to do something for our oceans? A great way to contribute is by limiting the amount of single use plastics you buy, for example in food packaging, and by using re-useable containers made of long-life recyclable plastic and other materials. You can also help by spreading the word and share our page – Research for clean seas: Researching plastics in the Atlantic.

 

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