National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species.
When paddler, filmmaker and Steve Weileman bottled his first sample of sea water off a remote, undeveloped section of the Alaskan coast it looked transparent and pristine. Weeks later when Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) partner scientist Abby Barrows looked at the same sample under her microscope she found what she finds in more than 85% of surface sea water samples: microplastic particles. Large plastic litter is easy to see in our oceans.
Plastic bags drift in the Atlantic like processed petroleum jellyfish, water bottles wash up on shores, and a massive collection of debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirls in the North Pacific. Microplastics, however, are only visible under a microscope and until recently they have been overlooked by scientists and the public.
Work by ASC and research partners at the MERI is finding more than 85% of surface samples contain microplastic particles
Yet, work by ASC and research partners at the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) is finding more than 85% of surface samples contain microplastic particles. These particles can resemble phytoplankton and are ingested by marine life. Consumed by larger species plastic and toxins may then bioaccumulate in larger marine mammals, sea birds and humans.
As a Patagonia environmental grantee ASC is working to raise public awareness and scientific understanding of this problem. In 2014 ASC will be recruiting a flotilla of adventure scientists in New England and around the world to help collect sea water samples to study microplastics and catalyze consumer and legislative change.
In recent months ASC adventurers have helped MERI expand its data set by collecting samples from as far away as Thailand and Alaska. Researchers at MERI found microplastic contamination in every single sample, with counts as high as 71 pieces per liter in one of Steve’s samples.
“Marine microplastics pollution is a global issue that is impacting fisheries and will impact people’s lives in the years to come,” says MERI scientist Abby Barrows. These plastic particles come from environmental weathering of plastic pollution, municipal runoff, manufacturing processes and even common cosmetics.
To study this problem in New England ASC needs rowers in Boston, divers from Portsmouth, sea kayakers near Camden, and sailors off Acadia to help add data points. One-liter samples of sea water are needed all along the New England coastline from Boston, Massachusetts to Eastport, Maine. By better understanding the distribution and concentration of microplastics, legislators and consumers can take steps to limit the spread of this pervasive form of pollution. Plastic bag bans in coastal communities, recycling programs for plastic commercial fishing gear and improved community recycling programs will all be informed by this research.
Anyone who likes to spend time on the water can contribute to this study. It is a simple sampling protocol that collects important data.