January 19, 2011

Save Our Shores Responds to Recent OSU Report that Claims Pacific Gyre is Exaggerated

A recent report claiming the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, “doesn’t seem to be as bad as advertised,” from Oregon Statue University’s (OSU) College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, has sent the media and many of those working to decrease the amount of plastic pollution in our oceans into a dizzying debate about whose data is right and whose could be wrong.

Part of the current confusion, and thus argument, comes from comparing apples to orangutans, though. The OSU report, written by Angelicque White, claims that if all the plastic particles in the North Pacific Gyre were to be collected into a mass, they would cover about 1% of Texas. Previous scientific expeditions to the North Pacific Gyre report those plastic particles can be found floating in an area comparable to the size of Texas, while some claim more than two times that size. White’s research calls twice the size of Texas "grossly exaggerated," while a recent research expedition aboard the Seaplex vessel led by Miriam Goldstein found floating plastic particles across 1,700 miles of the North Pacific Gyre.

Regardless of the exact measurements and proportions, there is far too much plastic pollution in our oceans today. Our marine life is suffering, the food chain is negatively affected, and thus plastic pollution is a critical issue that demands immediate action on all levels.

Save Our Shores focuses our work on land to target problematic pieces of pollution and develop ways to combat it. And this is something we ALL agree on. The only way to clean up the gyre and keep plastic pollution out of our oceans is to stop it from entering the ocean in the first place. White says, "Since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place." Save Our Shores and the rest of the anti-plastic pollution community could not agree more. That’s why we work day in and day out to ban single-use plastic bags locally, ban polystyrene take-out containers, and decrease the amount of cigarette butt litter that winds up on our beaches and in our oceans.

While it's true that many people imagine a floating island of garbage and debris out there in the middle of the ocean, not one scientific report or credible organization has ever made that claim. The imagery has been of a ‘plastic soup’ since day one, but the so-called 'garbage island' has been sensationalized in the media, so it's understandable where the confusion comes in, and it's important to understand that research will continue to change throughout the years.

There is a debate between the amount of plastic debris in the gyre, and more specifically, the density in relation to phytoplankton, which we assume will continue to change as research continues to address this topic. Previous samples taken from the gyre have plastic particles outnumbering phytoplankton 6-1, with less conservative samples showing plastic particles outnumbering phytoplankton upwards of 40-1. But White states that “phytoplankton (are) immensely more abundant than plastic debris” in the Gyre. And as Miriam Goldstein explains, “Most oceanographers, including myself, do not think that comparing the dry weight of plankton and plastic is a helpful way of understanding what is going on in the ocean.” (Read more on this in her blog entry).

The fact of the matter is that research coming out of the North Pacific Gyre will continue to be a growing body of research, and Save Our Shores will continue to monitor this research as we always have.

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NOAA Marine Debris Facts: