Plastics at SEA: Part I

On October 3, 2012 OMSI Educator Emilee Monson embarked on a ocean-bound trip along with 37 other scientists, teachers, students, and sailors. The Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition was a scientific research study conducted by Sea Education Association (SEA) and dedicated to studying the effects of plastic marine debris in the ocean ecosystem. The expedition also aimed to provide updates of floating plastic concentrations in the region known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

You can find Emilee presenting demos about plastics and the ocean environment in OMSI's Earth Hall on Saturdays.

Below is the beginning of a conversation with Emilee after her return to Portland and OMSI:

Q: What were your main motivations for joining this expedition?

I hate plastic. It’s a very obvious waste stream. I made an effort to reduce my own consumption of plastic but I wanted to be more involved. Like most people I had heard about the plastic or garbage “island” in the ocean, but I wanted to see what was there for myself. I had also heard it wasn’t really like that, and that most of the plastic was smaller than your pinkie nail. Basically I knew this trip could change my perspective. This was the first research trip to look at the North Pacific Gyre. Even the science department really didn’t know what we were going to find.

Q: How did your team go about collecting specimens?

There were 38 people onboard, and a little over half of them were watch standers. The day was divided into 5 watches, and the watch standers were divided into three groups. Every day you would have a night watch, and every third day you would get 12 hours off in the middle of the day. When you were on watch, you might be in the lab deploying nets or on deck running the ship. We had one, the MOCNESS, which was very heavy and complicated to use. It was actually a series of nets that deployed at different water depths. So we could tell the exact depths samples were coming from. The Neuston net is a surface skimmer and we used to capture about a mile’s worth of samples. We also used a carosel of Niskin Bottles to collect water samples from different depths.


Sometimes when you were in lab and there wasn’t a deployment, you would spend hours counting plastic from the nets – they were anything from sand size to the size of a fingernail. Generally it took a long time because you had to separate the plastic from gelatinous goo that used to be a marine organism. The plankton and the plastic were really mixed in together.

Q: What kind of an impact does plastic have on the ocean ecosystem?

To be honest we really don’t know. I can share some strong concerns and hypotheses though. We know chemicals can get soaked up in plastic and leach out later. This is why you wouldn’t eat food out of a Tupperware that used to have harmful chemicals in it or put plastic in a microwave. We know that fish are eating plastics in the ocean – we found pieces of plastic in the guts of fish. But how exactly is it affecting them? Does it pass through them? Does it stick around? If it sticks around, for how long? Anything that eats plankton will not likely be able to discriminate between their food and the small pieces of plastic in the water. But we don’t want to make the mistake of claiming something that hasn’t been confirmed by testing yet. This is really the beginning of people researching this subject, and we’re starting to ask the right questions.


Q: Did you have any expectations going into this trip? How did those change?

I still thought I would be able to see the plastic! I wasn’t expecting an island of garbage but I really thought it would be more visually significant. In reality you could sail right through it and not notice. That makes it easier to ignore and to me that’s a frightening thing.

Q: Was there anything on the trip that you found really surprising?

The day we got the Windrow Tow was crazy. It was the highest concentration of plastic we encountered, and was named after the plastic accumulating in a windrow. I remember hearing about it when I woke up that morning. When I finally got out on deck I saw a plastic spoon and some bottles with the caps still on floating by. This was garbage. It didn’t look like the coastal pictures where it’s just a layer of plastic. It was more speckled around. But it was everywhere. We started out dip netting, and I ended up getting small pieces all over my hands. It was kind of like trying to get sand off your hands when the salt water dries and it sticks. We did a tow while we were in the thick of it too, and processing that net took us days! We hand-counted about 17,000 pieces of plastic before we decided the sample was so large we needed to go use a grid and estimate. We ended up with over 24,000 pieces of grain size plastic in that one tow.

I think we all went in trying to not have preconceived notions. I knew it would be different than the coastal pictures the media had been picking up on. I knew we would probably find plastic that was smallish in size. I don’t know if there’s anything you can really do to prepare you for how you’re going to respond to it, though. I guess I was the most surprised about how I felt. 

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