Rather than a visible "patch" or "island" of trash, marine debris is highly dispersed across thousands of miles of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The debris area cannot be mapped from air or space, so SEAPLEX researchers collected samples in 132 net tows (130 of which contained plastic) across a distance of more than 2,375 kilometers (1,700 miles) in an attempt to find the boundaries of the patch. The region, a "convergence zone" where floating debris in water congregates, is generally avoided by mariners due to its calm winds and mild currents. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre has been understudied by scientists, leaving many open questions about marine debris in the area and its long-term effects on the marine environment.
"This study clearly emphasizes the importance of directly sampling in the environment where the impacts may be occurring," said James Leichter, a Scripps associate professor of biological oceanography who participated in the SEAPLEX expedition but was not an author of the new paper. "We are seeing that most of our prior predictions and expectations about potential impacts have been based on speculation rather than evidence and in many cases we have in fact underestimated the magnitude of effects. SEAPLEX also clearly illustrates how relatively small amounts of funding directed for novel field sampling and work in remote places can vastly increase our knowledge and understanding of environmental problems."
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University of California - San Diego