Friday, July 2, 2010

Searching Our Oceans

(GlassDharma is privileged to welcome the contribution of this guest post from Ryan Elizabeth Cope, a recent graduate from the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine.  May we keep perspective about the Youth of our society and what we are leaving behind for them to manage in this place we ALL call "Home".)

Everyone always told me that when I got to college, my mind would be opened to all these great ideas and philosophies and that it was going to be a totally liberating experience. Well, having just graduated college, I have to say that they were completely right. Looking back on myself four years ago, I’m not a completely different person but my ideas about the world and my place in it have certainly shifted dramatically. I’ve become more aware of my surroundings and have learned the true meaning of the words “conservation” and “sustainability”. The most important lesson I’ve taken away from my education is that we have an impact on this earth, whether it be positive or negative.

The turning point of my education came during the summer of 2008, when I participated in the Sea Education Association summer program. Among other things, it included a four-week sail from Honolulu, Hawaii to San Francisco, California on the tall ship research vessel Robert C. Seamans. At the start of the program, we were asked to choose a group research topic and my group chose to analyze plastic density in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (the area of ocean we would be sailing through). We were expecting to see an increase of plastic debris as we reached the center of the gyre and were not disappointed. A gyre is an oceanographic term for a collection of rotating currents that come together, with the center being a collection area for anything and everything floating in that part of the ocean. Mid-way through the journey, we were collecting plastic in every single tow (to see just what this means, see the Plastics at Sea expedition videos!  And at one point, our vessel actually became ensnared in a bit of stray netting!

Most people know of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre by its more popular name, the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch. In actuality, the accumulation of plastics in all major gyres is more like a soup, with small bits floating just below the surface, barely visible. There are no islands of plastic floating out in the big blue, which unfortunately means that the problem is larger than the naked eye can see.
                                                                                          Propeller Foul (courtesy of Patrick Curran)

Synthetic rope w. goose barnacles                    Mahi Mahi w. previously ingested plastic grid

The point of that story was that after this experience, my way of life literally changed. Seeing plastic, a product produced and used by humans, just floating in the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was astounding and disgusting but also a huge motivator. I had realized my passion: studying marine debris and figuring out ways to stop the problem in the first place! This all came together nicely during my senior year of college in the form of my capstone (senior project). I decided to look at how recycling could be a potential solution to the marine debris problem. Along the way, I learned a lot about plastics and their detrimental effects on not only us humans but also on all marine life. Two of the biggest problems associated with plastic pollution in the marine environment are entanglement and ingestion. Seabirds, sea turtles and all sorts of fish species can get caught in derelict fishing gear and because of this, often have shorter life spans.

Marine organisms also ingest plastic, mistaking it for other, edible prey and either choke on the debris or starve to death. Chris Jordan, a visual statistics artist documented some of these effects on Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll, an extremely remote land formation located halfway between Tokyo and Honolulu, Hawaii. His images are stark and 100% real; to see these magnificent birds having died with plastic in their guts is sickening and enough to make someone want to give up plastics all together.
                                                                          photo by Ryan Cope
What I also learned through months of research was that it’s not all bad news. Sure, people will say that there’s no solution, or that we will never be able to truly get away from plastics or that it just doesn’t matter. But there is hope! We as a community can prevent and solve the plastics pollution problem, and we can do it through small steps. I recently saw a screening of the movie “Climate of Change,” and the message it sent was this: something bad is happening and we as a people have to rise up and do something about it. The people at Glass Dharma are the embodiment of this message and I am so thrilled to be a part of their empowering campaign.

My senior project was about plastics recycling and although every marine debris expert on the planet will say that it’s not a viable solution, it has the potential to become one. It’s better than nothing. We are constantly being bombarded with bad news these days (the BP oil spill and a faltering economy come to mind…) but these things shouldn’t be seen as hindrances. Rather, they should be taken as a motivation to make a change and do something different. Something as simple as bringing a bag to the store, saying no to plastic flatware, even or drinking your favorite iced beverage through a beautiful glass straw. All of these options are attainable and working together, we can do our part to stop the plastic pollution problem. We exist in a climate of change and now it’s our chance to do something positive for the Earth we call home!

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