The crew of the Greenpeace ship MY Arctic Sunrise voyage into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch documenting plastics and other marine debris. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a soupy mix of plastics and microplastics, now twice the size of Texas, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean. (Ocean Voyage Institute)
The Ocean Voyages Institute has figured out how to pull 40 tons of "ghost" fishing nets and other plastic debris from the North Pacific Gyre. That's a proof of concept that another cleanup effort, the multi-million dollar plastic boom, is still struggling to achieve.
Problem is, there are now an estimated 78,660 tons to go.
“I have certainly seen monster ghost (abandoned) nets," said Mary Crowley, founder and director of the institute, "but there is mile after mile of laundry detergent bottles, bleach bottles, cartons -- if we don't change our ways by 2050, we will have much more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
Last year, the Sausalito-based nonprofit distributed 18 GPS satellite trackers to various vessels, including ships from Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, as well as mariners crossing from California to Hawaii. Crews from all these ships attached the trackers to tangles of fishing nets they encountered, so that a Hawaiian-based cargo ship could later round up the refuse. The Institute reported on Friday that its 2019 Ocean Cleanup Expedition successfully used the GPS trackers to pull 40 tons, or 80,000 pounds of debris from the ocean.
“Each tracked net has a way of leading us to areas of higher density,” explained Crowley at a post-expedition media event. “One of our tracked nets led us to all sorts of small nets and one five-ton monster ghost net.”
The tagged debris served to locate areas of dense plastic pollution. Once on site, ship members would use drone technology to survey the area.
“If we can pull the stuff out, it makes the problem recognizable,” said Andy Sybrandy, president of Pacific Gyre the company that provided the GPS trackers. “It teaches people not to get it in there in the first place.”
While this is thought to be the largest at-sea cleanup of the Pacific Ocean to date, there is an almost unimaginable amount of work left to be done. The volume collected by the expedition accounted for less than 0.1% of the nets estimated to be abandoned and lurking in the mid-ocean vortex known as the Pacific Gyre. In 2018, an article published in Nature Scientific Reports estimated that there are about 79,000 tons of plastic in the gyre.
“The goal isn't to get everything,” cautions Crowley. “I think that is an unrealistic goal. But I think we can help make the ocean a healthier habitat for all the life within it”.
The Institute’s haul comes just as federal officials released figures that underscore the growing problem of whales entangled in commercial fishing gear. According to NOAA Fisheries, 46 whales were caught up off the West Coast in 2018, the latest year tallied.
“Gruesome entanglements have become the scary new normal for West Coast whales,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, in response to the report. “These beautiful and highly endangered animals won’t survive the deadly gauntlet of fishing gear, ship strikes and climate change unless we find new ways to fish with fewer or no ropes.”
Earlier this year, California officials struck a deal with the Center for Biological Diversity and other conservation groups to step up efforts to reduce entanglements. Officials also agreed to shut down the California Dungeness Crab fishing season three months early, to prevent whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear. Meanwhile, NOAA officials say they’re pursuing answers to why entanglements are up steadily since 2015. Prior to that, incidents averaged 10 per year.
Next year, the Ocean Voyages Institute plans a longer, three-month expedition, with plans to deploy new techniques for fishing out consumer plastics.
“Our plan is to greatly scale up our effort next year in the same area,” says Crowley. “This is our backyard.”
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.