Environment

Sailing from Miami Beach on mission to study the ocean’s ‘plastic smog’

Video: Ocean pollution team sets sail from Miami Beach Marina

Marcus Eriksen, PhD, director of research for 5Gyres, describes the project aboard the 170' three-masted schooner "Mystic." The project will concentrate on plastics in the ocean. Video by Walter Michot / Miami Herald staff
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Marcus Eriksen, PhD, director of research for 5Gyres, describes the project aboard the 170' three-masted schooner "Mystic." The project will concentrate on plastics in the ocean. Video by Walter Michot / Miami Herald staff

A team of researchers boarded an old-time three-masted schooner and set sail from Miami Beach Marina on Tuesday afternoon to investigate a modern problem — microplastic.

That would be the degraded or pulverized remnants of bottles, cups and other packaging dumped into the sea every year. Researcher Marcus Eriksen says there is so much of the damaging stuff — broken into bits smaller than a grain of rice — adrift in the world’s oceans that it constitutes sort of a “plastic smog.”

Eriksen was among a crew — including folk-rock musician Jack Johnson and filmmaker Céline Cousteau, the granddaughter of famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau — sailing to the Bahamas for an environmental summit on Friday. The graceful schooner, called Mystic, will then head to Bermuda before sailing north for New York.

Eriksen and wife, environmental activist and writer Anna Cummins, co-founded the nonprofit group 5 Gyres, which aims to study and highlight a growing but largely unseen threat to ocean life. In a December 2014 paper published in the science journal Plos One, Eriksen — an expert on marine pollution — calculated a staggering estimate for the amount of plastic in the sea: 269,000 metric tons made up of 5.25 trillion particles.

The vast bulk of it — 92 percent — consists of tiny microplastic.

“You’re not going to solve the problem by going to the ocean and picking up trash,” Erickson said aboard the ship before its research trip. “It’s like trying to clean up smog with a butterfly net — it doesn’t make any sense. You really need to focus on those upstream solutions.”

During the cruise, researchers will employ a high-speed trawl during the day as they travel, collecting a sample of microplastic. Twice a day, they will trade the high-speed trawl for a very fine net with tiny holes designed to measure densities of zooplankton and phytoplankton — essential life in the marine food chain — along with scooping up microplastic.

Lisa Kaas Boyle, policy director for 5 Gyres and an environmental lawyer, writes policy legislation based on the nonprofit group’s research. The group’s current top priority is to ban plastic microbeads, which are often used in face scrubs and toothpastes.

Every expedition, Kaas Boyle said, adds to a databank of information she can use to make the case.

“This whole notion of disposability with plastics is really a design flaw,” she said.

Also on board the ship was Amy Halman, the president of Acure. Based in Fort Lauderdale, Acure makes personal care products with only organically certified ingredients. Halman said her company is committed to using natural exfoliants like sea kelp, and that while plastic microbeads are easy and cheap to mass produce, using natural products can also be financially sustainable.

For Cousteau, the voyage is an opportunity to gather more evidence to show the damaging effects of plastic, which is often ingested by turtles and other marine life.

“There’s a lot of people who really need concrete data to fully accept and understand what’s happening,” Cousteau said. “There’s an intellectual need for that, I think, for people to fully understand what our impact on any ecosystem is … Being able to have that hard data to back up what we know intrinsically in this community is really helpful to a general audience.”

The morning before the Mystic set sail, Eriksen and Cummins’ 2-year-old, Avani Cummins, sat on deck, her blonde curls bouncing as she listened to Jack Johnson strum his guitar and sing The Sharing Song to her. This will be her first expedition.

“I’m super relaxed,” Eriksen said. “Now I’m on the boat, I have my crew. I know when we’re leaving. I know where I’m going.”

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