American daily life is disconnected from the natural world. The average shopper rarely feels the environmental impact of choosing a paper or plastic bag at the grocery store – in part because waste disposal is hidden from view.
At sea the distance between cause and effect shrinks. A warm high-pressure air mass merging with a cooler low-pressure system tends to produce cumulus clouds on the horizon and rain shortly upon the quarterdeck. Increased nutrients in the surface layer of the water column usually means more food for phytoplankton, which in turn provides more prey for zooplankton and more oxygenated water benefitting fish and other creatures. Nowadays people are often oblivious to the science that is key to understanding our world, but knowledge and effective application of these natural relationships is vital to ensuring prudent use and care of the resources we depend on.
On the SSV Corwith Cramer, our crew is united around our concern with plastic pollution in the marine environment. Though the oceans are vast, they remain neither inexhaustible nor indestructible. We are attempting to quantify the extent of a problem that may be greater than our ability to correct it. We are collecting physical data to fill in the blank spaces of a largely unseen picture. A thousand miles from the nearest landmass, we witness one of the most destructive by-products of modern development: disposability.
Several times each day we haul a one-meter by half-meter net across the surface of the ocean for a set period of time at a set speed. A single tow may capture thousands of bits of plastic in any square kilometer sampled. The total number of plastic pieces captured in these tows is then averaged out and multiplied across the seven-kilometer radius of ocean visible from the bow of our ship. This calculation commonly generates a figure of more than a million pieces of floating plastic debris on the visible horizon.
Beyond the fatal ingestion hazard these plastics pose to megafauna such as fish, birds, and sea turtles, we understand little of the biochemical implications this pollution has on the lower levels of the food web. What we don't know is magnified exponentially by the scale of the problem. Most folks don't like to consider the logistics of preservation, transportation, and recruitment that put food on their tables, light in their homes, and health in their bodies. If an object breaks it is usually cheaper to replace it than fix it. At sea, the disposability and convenience so highly prized on land is not so desirable: Every item brought aboard ship must be counted, stowed, and rationed for use over the course of the voyage. Our biodegradable waste is tossed into the same water we desalinate for drinking. The wind in our sails and the steel hull of our ship are the only things separating us from our trash's disappearance into the Bermuda Triangle.
It is humbling to study the interaction of life forms smaller than the average eyelash while navigating the ocean's expanse by the light of the stars. Restored by constant attentiveness to current circumstances and the need to communicate our insight with others, our crew will shortly return to our various walks of life to share the lessons learned with family, friends, and colleagues. It remains to be seen how we will stay vigilant of the pollutants our consumption generates. Increased awareness of a problem is the first step toward change. Instead of choosing paper or plastic, we'll be bringing our own bags to the store.