The Azores: First Witness to Global Marine Plastic Pollution

Having left Bordeaux on March 15, the Race for Water Odyssey arrived in the Azores on Friday afternoon, the location of the expedition’s first scientific analyses.

© Race for Water 2015 / Peter Charaf

It is estimated that 80% of pollution in the ocean is plastic. This debris has devastating effects on marine ecosystems and, as a consequence, on human beings. Entanglement, lacerations, infections or death by drowning, suffocation, or strangulation, the negative impacts of plastic pollution on marine animals are numerous. Micro-plastics (<5mm) suspended in surface water can be ingested by aquatic organisms, such as plankton, and infect the entire food chain. Furthermore, as plastics disintegrate, they can release toxic compounds that were added in the manufacturing process (flame retardants, PCBs, bisphenol A, phthalates). These toxins can also contaminate the food chain. Finally, floating plastics create new habitats that further enable the transport of invasive (alien) species over long distances.

© Race for Water 2015 / Peter Charaf

As part of the “Race for Water Odyssey”, a team of scientists is evaluating the scale of plastic contamination by going onto islands located in the trash vortexes created by this pollution. These islands act as natural barriers to the long-term transport of marine plastics, by trapping the drifting plastics on their shores. As such, their beaches provide valuable and representative sites for evaluating the types and the quantities of plastics present in the surrounding waters. The Archipelago of the Azores, located close to the center of the North Atlantic trash gyre greatly suffers from plastic pollution. Thus, it constitutes the first witness of an unprecedented environmental disaster.

A Carefully Studied and Adapted Scientific Protocol

© Race for Water 2015 / Peter Charaf

Five beaches were chosen in collaboration with local experts such as Carla Damaso, from the Sea Observatory of the Azores (OMA) and Dr. Christopher Kim Pham, researcher in the Oceanography department of the University of the Azores (DOP). These shores were studied using a systematic and standardized scientific approach based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s method. Macro-debris (> 2.5cm) were collected, categorized depending on composition and original use, and weighed. Meso-debris (5mm-2.5cm) and micro-debris (< 5mm) were collected by researchers using sieves, and sent for analysis to the Lausanne Federal Polytechnic School’s Central Environmental Laboratory (CEL/EPFL, Switzerland).

The Unprecedented Use of an Aerial Drone to Map Polluted Beaches

This first stop also allowed tests of a new technology for identifying areas of plastic pollution. The eBee aerial drone from innovative Swiss drone company senseFly, producers of aerial imaging drones for professional applications, was used to create and capture high-definition mapping of the beaches in the study. By using the innovative drones, researchers will be able to compare the obtained images with the research on the ground. The low-flying eBee will be used during the expedition for two purposes: to allow Duke University and Oregon State University to analyze the macro-trash that is present on the shores, and to create an initial overview of the innovative technology’s capabilities, in order to further explore unmapped territories with the help of a high powered tool using specific image analysis techniques.

©Race for Water 2015 / Peter Charaf

Meeting Local Populations

The members of the expedition also had the opportunity to meet with local communities for the first time. Marco Simeoni, the expedition leader, is happy to have interacted with the different local figures affected by the pollution:

RaceforWater_PeterCharaf_BeachCleanUpAzores (2)
© Race for Water 2015 / Peter Charaf

“We’ve drafted a targeted questionnaire which will allow us to better understand the constraints and challenges these island populations are facing as the pollution invades their beaches and surrounding waters. We also tried to better understand the solutions the locals have put into place, especially the fishing association, in dealing with this invasion of trash.”

In addition, the team could also work with local authorities and understand what actions they are taking to face this problem. Finally, a conference-debate was organized at the Oceanography department of the University of the Azores in order for students and professors to have a dialogue on marine pollution.

With its mission in the Azores completed, the R4WO is now heading to the Bermudas, where a second set of beaches will be analyzed. The expedition will then drop anchor in New York in order to organize several events to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans, among which is a plenary session at the United Nations, organized by the UNEP.

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To read more on the subject:
Race for Water Odyssey – Trash Gyres and Witness Islands

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
The Race for Water Foundation is an organization dedicated to the preservation of water and the ocean in particular. This indispensable resource is under massive threat from pollution and must be protected. The Foundation aims to identify, promote and implement technological solutions to preserve the ocean. Race for Water remains committed and head back to sea with the Race for Water Odyssey : a 5-year expedition around the world dedicated to science and energy transition, using the ocean, the sun and the wind as its sole sources of energy