Adventure Science: Trawling for Plastic Pollution Aboard the Orion of Aberdeen

Emily Stifler Wolfe of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation is working with Gregg Treinish and many others to bring us stories from around the world. Here, follow the crew of the Orion of Aberdeen as they sail through the Earth’s oceans, collecting data about marine plastic pollution for the Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation Marine Microplastics Project as well as for 5 Gyres.

By Edwin Butter and Marjo Boertien

With blue skies, around 10 knots of wind and smooth seas, we decided to try out the trawl from 5 Gyres for the first time. We wanted to try it in the waters around Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, before leaving for a larger trip to see how it worked and how it would affect the speed and steering of our boat, a 54-foot Koopmans-design ketch named the Orion of Aberdeen.

The Orion of Aberdeen sails near Grand Canary Island, Spain, off the west coast of Africa. (Photo courtesy Orion crew)

Our boat is a sturdy lady. She has proven to be stable during all kinds of winds and waters; she is even prepared for icy conditions. For now, she is in the warm waters of the east Atlantic, heading south along the west coast of Africa to Senegal, Gambia and Cape Verde Islands.

We set sail in the early morning, together with Richi, Brenda and Joel. As soon as we were outside the traffic zones, we put out the trawl on portside, making sure it was well out of the boat’s wake. To do so, we used our spinnaker boom, so the trawl would be about five meters away. The line we used gave the trawl another six meters of space toward the back. Right away, we saw that it worked really well, with 75 percent of the scoop beneath the water surface floating smoothly.

Trawling for plastics aboard the Orion of Aberdeen (photo courtesy Orion Crew)
Trawling for plastics aboard the Orion of Aberdeen. (Photo courtesy Orion crew)

We also spent time spotting larger debris in the ocean during the deployment of the trawl. While we didn’t see any debris, we were lucky to spot a loggerhead turtle!

In the afternoon the wind started gusting, so we had to get the trawl on board a little earlier than planned. This, too, went smoothly. We used an extra safety recovery line, adjusted to the side of the trawl, to get it back on board.

The effect on the boat handling and speed was minor—around one knot in these conditions: wind 8–10 knots north, half wind, current 1.5 knots on the head.

Next we began another exciting part of the experiment: analyzing the content of the net. We were curious to see what was inside. It turned out to be challenging to determine the material of some particles. Joel and Brenda, both marine scientists, managed well though, and we determined that the net contained 11 tiny particles of plastic, all smaller than five millimeters.

Edwin and Marjo. (Photo courtesy Orion crew)

Considering that a relatively small device “catches” that many particles in a vast ocean in just a couple of hours, the result is really something to think about. All in all, we had fun with the experiment and are looking forward to the next trawl, knowing that plastic is a serious and urgent worldwide problem.

Edwin Butter is an HSE certified commercial diver and a pilot who has traveled the world for the past 15 years, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Marjo Boertien is a former business consultant and has sailed and lived on a boat for the past four years. They dedicate themselves “100 percent” to improving and protecting marine life, and host up to four scientists at a time on the Orion of Aberdeen.

Learn more about this and other ASC projects on our blog, by liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter (@AdventurScience), Instagram (@AdventureScience) and Google+.

Read More by Gregg Treinish and His Team

Changing Planet

, , ,

Meet the Author
Gregg Treinish founded Adventure Scientists in 2011 with a strong passion for both scientific discovery and exploration. National Geographic named Gregg Adventurer of the Year in 2008 when he and a friend completed a 7,800-mile trek along the spine of the Andes Mountain Range. He was included on the Christian Science Monitor's 30 under 30 list in 2012, and the following year became a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work with Adventure Scientists. In 2013, he was named a Backpacker Magazine "hero", in 2015, a Draper Richards Kaplan Entrepreneur and one of Men's Journal's "50 Most Adventurous Men." In 2017, he was named an Ashoka Fellow and in 2018 one of the Grist 50 "Fixers." Gregg holds a biology degree from Montana State University and a sociology degree from CU-Boulder. He thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2004. Read more updates from Gregg and others on the Adventure Scientists team at Follow Adventure Scientists on Instagram @adventurescientists, on Facebook @adventurescientists, and on Twitter @AdvScientists.