Sea Education Association

East Falmouth, MA, United States

Sea Education Association

East Falmouth, MA, United States
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Jambeck J.R.,University of Georgia | Geyer R.,University of California at Santa Barbara | Wilcox C.,Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization | Siegler T.R.,DSM Environmental Services | And 4 more authors.
Science | Year: 2015

Plastic debris in the marine environment is widely documented, but the quantity of plastic entering the ocean from waste generated on land is unknown. By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, we estimated the mass of land-based plastic waste entering the ocean. We calculate that 275 million metric tons (MT) of plastic waste was generated in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million MT entering the ocean. Population size and the quality of waste management systems largely determine which countries contribute the greatest mass of uncaptured waste available to become plastic marine debris. Without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science. All rights reserved.

News Article | August 22, 2016

Kamilo beach, on the tip of Hawaii’s Big Island, is a remote tropical shore. It has white sand, powerful waves and cannot be reached by road. It has, in fact, much that an idyllic tropical beach should have. But there is one inescapable issue: it is regularly carpeted with plastic. Bottles, fishing nets, ropes, shoes and toothbrushes are among the tons of waste washed up here, thanks to a combination of ocean currents and local eddies. A study in 2011 reported that the top sand layer could be up to 30% plastic by weight1. It has been called the dirtiest beach in the world, and is a startling and visible demonstration of how much plastic detritus humanity has dumped into the world’s oceans. From Arctic to Antarctic, from surface to sediment, in every marine environment where scientists have looked, they have found plastic. Other human-generated debris rots or rusts away, but plastics can persist for years, killing animals, polluting the environment and blighting coastlines. By some estimates, plastics comprise 50–80% of the litter in the oceans. “There are places where you don’t find plastic,” says Kara Lavender Law, an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “But in terms of the different marine reservoirs, we’ve found plastic in all of them. We know it’s pervasive.” Newspapers tell stories of the ‘Great Pacific garbage patch’, a region of the central Pacific where plastic particles accumulate, and volunteers participate in beach clean-ups across the globe. But in many ways, research lags behind public concern. Scientists are still struggling to answer the most basic questions: how much plastic is in the oceans, where, in what form and what harm it’s doing. That’s because science at sea is hard, expensive and time-consuming. It is difficult to comprehensively survey vast oceans for small — sometimes microscopic — plastic fragments, and few researchers have made this their line of work. But now interest is picking up. “There have been more publications in the last four years than the previous four decades,” says Marcus Eriksen, director of research and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute in Santa Monica, California, which works to fight plastic pollution. Scientists and environmentalists know that there is a lot to do. Last May, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) passed a resolution at its Nairobi meeting, stating that “the presence of plastic litter and microplastics in the marine environment is a rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. In 2014, a team at the US marine park Papahānaumokuākea, off the northwest coast of Hawaii, removed a fishing net from the reserve that weighed 11.5 tonnes — roughly equivalent to a London bus. Nets and other fishing equipment that have been lost or discarded at sea are thought to make up a large fraction of marine plastic. An estimate2 from UNEP suggests that this ‘ghost’ fishing gear makes up 10% of all marine litter, or around 640,000 tonnes. There is much more than that. Global production of plastics rises every year — it is now up to around 300 million tonnes — and much of it eventually ends up in the ocean. Plastic litter is left on beaches, and plastic bags blow into the sea. The vast quantities of plastics dumped as landfill can, if sites are not properly managed, easily wash or blow away. Some sources are less obvious: as tyres wear down, they leave tiny fragments on roads that leach into drains and on into the ocean. In a 2014 paper, Eriksen and his team analysed data on the items found in a series of expeditions across the world’s oceans and estimated that 87% by weight of floating plastic was greater than 4.75 millimetres in size3. The list included buoys, lines, nets, buckets, bottles and bags (see ‘A sea of plastic’). But when the pieces were counted instead of weighed, large plastics made up just 7% of the total. Many plastic items break down under the onslaught of sunlight and waves until they eventually reach microscopic sizes, and other plastics are small from the start, such as the ‘microbeads’ that are added to face scrubs and other cosmetic products, and that go down the drain. Concern about these microplastics has been growing ever since 2004, when Richard Thompson, who researches ocean plastic at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, coined the term. (It is now often used to refer to pieces less than 5 millimetres across.) His team found microplastics in most of the samples it took from 18 British beaches, as well as in plankton samples collected from the North Sea as far back as the 1960s4. Since then, the number of papers using the term has rocketed, and researchers are attempting to answer questions ranging from how toxic the materials are, to how they are distributed around the world. If surveying the ocean for plastic is expensive and difficult at the surface, it’s even harder below it: researchers lack samples from enormous areas of the deep sea that have never been explored. And even if they could survey all these regions, the concentration is typically so dilute that they would have to test huge volumes of water to get reliable results. Instead, they are forced to estimate and extrapolate. In a paper published last year, a team led by Jenna Jambeck, who researches waste management at the University of Georgia in Athens, estimated how much waste coastal countries and territories generate, and how much of that could be plastic that ends up in the ocean5. The group reached a figure of 4.8 million to 12.7 million tonnes every year — very roughly equivalent to 500 billion plastic drinks bottles. But her estimate excluded the plastic that gets lost or dumped at sea, and all the plastic that is already there. To get a handle on this, some researchers have gone trawling, using fine-meshed nets to see what plastic they can catch. Last year, oceano­grapher Erik van Sebille of Imperial College London and his colleagues published one of the largest collections of such data6. They combined information from 11,854 individual trawls, from every ocean except the Arctic, to produce a ‘global inventory’ of small plastic pieces floating at or near the surface. They estimated that, in 2014, there were between 15 trillion and 51 trillion pieces of microplastic floating in the oceans, with a total weight of 93,000 to 236,000 tonnes. But these numbers present scientists with a problem. This estimate of total surface plastic is just a small fraction of what Jambeck estimated entered the ocean every year. So where is all the rest? “That’s the big question,” says Jambeck. “That’s a tough one.” Researchers are trying to find answers. Jambeck is now working with a mobile-phone app called the Marine Debris Tracker, which offers a way to crowdsource vast amounts of data as users send in information about rubbish they encounter. She is also working on a project for UNEP to build a global database of marine-litter projects. The mismatch between the estimated amount of plastic entering the oceans and the amount actually observed has come to be known as the ‘missing plastic’ problem. Adding to the puzzle, data from some locations do not show a clear increase in plastic concentrations over recent years, even though global production of the materials is soaring. Public attention has focused on the Great Pacific garbage patch, where plastics collect thanks to an ocean current called a gyre. The name is something of a misnomer — visitors to the patch would not find piles of seaborne rubbish. A study from 2001 reported 334,271 pieces of plastic per square kilometre in the gyre7. This is the largest tally recorded in the Pacific Ocean, but still works out as roughly one small fragment for every three square metres. Modelling by van Sebille and his colleagues suggest that concentrations could be several orders of magnitude higher in the Pacific garbage patch, and an equivalent zone in the North Atlantic, than elsewhere. But the plastic here is accounted for in surveys, whereas the missing plastic is, by definition, missing and therefore somewhere else. Some of it is probably on the sea floor. Certain types of plastic sink, and even ones that start out floating can eventually become covered with marine organisms and be pulled down. Work from Thompson has shown microplastics in deep-ocean sediment — an under-studied zone that could be hiding some of the missing millions of tonnes8. Remotely operated vehicles also regularly find large plastic items among the litter that has sunk into the deepest ocean trenches. A substantial portion of ocean plastic may simply end up on shorelines, and other plastic ‘sinks’ are uncovered all the time. In 2014, Thompson co-authored a paper showing that microplastics had accumulated in Arctic sea ice at concentrations several orders of magnitude greater than that found even in highly contaminated surface waters9. “We have a lot of educated guesses” about where the missing plastic is, says Law. “In my mind, we don’t have the answer to that.” Thompson and others are now looking beyond microplastics to nanoplastics — ones less than 100 nanometres in size. “Nano-sized particles of plastic are being manufactured,” says Thompson. “So it’s highly likely that some will escape into the environment. There’s also the fragmentation of larger items.” But nanoplastics are proving hard to study. Researchers commonly use a type of spectroscopy to confirm whether fragments recovered from the sea are made of plastic, but the method does not work well on pieces below about 10 micrometres, Thompson says. He hopes to learn more as part of a UK-government-funded project called RealRiskNano, which will look at sources and pathways to the environment for these tiny fragments. “It wouldn’t surprise me to find they do exist. But at the moment it’s below the level of detection from an environmental sample.” Researchers know that marine plastic can harm animals. Ghost fishing gear has trapped and killed hundreds of animal species, from turtles to seals to birds. Many organisms also swallow pieces of plastic, which can accumulate in their digestive system. According to one often-quoted figure, around 90% of seabirds called fulmars washed ashore dead in the North Sea had plastic in their guts. What’s less clear is whether this pollution has major impacts on populations. Lab studies have demonstrated the toxicity of microplastics, but these often use concentrations that are much higher than those found in the oceans. In February this year, though, Arnaud Huvet, who studies invertebrates at France’s national marine research agency (Ifremer) in Plouzané, published work in which he exposed Pacific oysters to microplastics at concentrations similar to those found in the sediment where the creatures live. Animals in the plastic-laced water had poorer-quality eggs and sperm and produced 41% fewer larvae than did those in a control group10. It was one of the first studies to show a direct link between plastic and fertility problems. “That made an impact,” van Sebille says. So did a study in June from fish ecologists Oona Lönnstedt and Peter Eklöv, in which they exposed perch larvae to ‘environmentally relevant’ concentrations of microplastics. The larvae ate the plastics — they even seemed to prefer them to actual food — which made them grow more slowly and fail to respond to the odour of predators. After 24 hours in a tank with a predator, 34% of plastic-dosed larvae survived, compared with 46% of those raised in clean water11. Lönnstedt, at Uppsala University in Sweden, was disturbed by photos of the transparent larvae clearly showing the small plastic spheres in their guts. “It’s awful, so of course I feel strongly about it,” she says. “People who say plastics won’t be an issue in the oceans need to take a look at the evidence again.” But some scientists question the implications of the work. Alastair Grant, an ecologist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, says that the levels of plastic that gave adverse effects in Lönnstedt’s paper — 10–80 particles per litre — are still orders of magnitude higher than the vast majority of field measurements. Most reports are less than 1 particle per litre, he says. “The evidence I can see at the moment suggests microplastics are probably within safe environmental limits in most places.” Despite the lack of comprehensive data about ocean plastics, there is a broad consensus among researchers that humanity should not wait for more evidence before taking action. Then the question becomes, how? One controversial project has been devised by The Ocean Cleanup, a non-profit group that by 2020 hopes to deploy a 100-kilometre-long floating barrier in the Great Pacific garbage patch. The group claims that the barrier will remove half of the surface plastic there. But the project has met with scepticism from researchers. They say that plastic in the gyre is so dilute that it will be tough to scoop up, and they worry that the barrier will disturb fish populations and plankton. Boyan Slat, chief executive of The Ocean Cleanup, welcomes the criticism, but says that the barrier project is still in an early phase, with a prototype currently deployed off the Dutch coast. “We’re using this test as a platform to investigate whether there’s any negative consequences. The only way to find out is to go out and do it,” he says. In a paper published earlier this year12, van Sebille and his colleague Peter Sherman showed that it would be much more effective to place clean-up equipment near the coasts of China and Indonesia, where much of the plastic pollution originates. “The closer to the plastic economy loop you intervene the better it is,” van Sebille says. “We’ve got to stop it in the treatment plants, in the landfills. That is the point to intervene.” Eriksen likens the situation to addressing air pollution, where people have long realized that filtering the air is not a long-term solution. Filtering the oceans seems similarly implausible, he says. “What we’ve seen worldwide is you go to the source.” That means reducing the use of plastic, improving waste management and recycling the materials to stop them from reaching the water at all. That’s a lot to ask, considering how ubiquitous plastics are. But some scientists allow themselves to imagine a world where plastics have been brought under control. According to research by Law and Jan van Franeker, some types of floating plastic might disappear in just a few years13. Perhaps even Kamilo beach would eventually return to its unpolluted form. But plastic will have left its mark, as layers of tiny particles embedded in sediment on the ocean floor. Over time, this plastic will become cemented into Earth — a legacy of the plastic era. “There will be this layer of rock around the world that is going to be plastic,” Eriksen says.

Van Franeker J.A.,Wageningen University | Law K.L.,Sea Education Association
Environmental Pollution | Year: 2015

Fulmars are effective biological indicators of the abundance of floating plastic marine debris. Long-term data reveal high plastic abundance in the southern North Sea, gradually decreasing to the north at increasing distance from population centres, with lowest levels in high-arctic waters. Since the 1980s, pre-production plastic pellets in North Sea fulmars have decreased by ∼75%, while user plastics varied without a strong overall change. Similar trends were found in net-collected floating plastic debris in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre, with a ∼75% decrease in plastic pellets and no obvious trend in user plastic. The decreases in pellets suggest that changes in litter input are rapidly visible in the environment not only close to presumed sources, but also far from land. Floating plastic debris is rapidly "lost" from the ocean surface to other as-yet undetermined sinks in the marine environment. © 2015 The Authors. All rights reserved.

Goldstein M.C.,University of California at San Diego | Goodwin D.S.,Sea Education Association
PeerJ | Year: 2013

Substantial quantities of small plastic particles, termed "microplastic," have been found in many areas of the world ocean, and have accumulated in particularly high densities on the surface of the subtropical gyres. While plastic debris has been documented on the surface of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) since the early 1970s, the ecological implications remain poorly understood. Organisms associated with floating objects, termed the "rafting assemblage," are an important component of the NPSG ecosystem. These objects are often dominated by abundant and fast-growing gooseneck barnacles (Lepas spp.), which predate on plankton and larval fishes at the sea surface. To assess the potential effects of microplastic on the rafting community, we examined the gastrointestinal tracts of 385 barnacles collected from the NPSG for evidence of plastic ingestion. We found that 33.5% of the barnacles had plastic particles present in their gastrointestinal tract, ranging from one plastic particle to a maximum of 30 particles. Particle ingestion was positively correlated to capitulum length, and no blockage of the stomach or intestines was observed. The majority of ingested plastic was polyethylene, with polypropylene and polystyrene also present. Our results suggest that barnacle ingestion of microplastic is relatively common, with unknown trophic impacts on the rafting community and the NPSG ecosystem. © 2013 Goldstein and Goodwin.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: | Award Amount: 10.45K | Year: 2010

The Sea Education Association (SEA) requests funds to replace Chirp sonar topside electronics on two vessels, the Corwith Cramer (operating in the Atlantic Ocean) and Robert C. Seamans (operating in the Pacific Ocean). The equipment requested will be used by marine science students and scientists from colleges and research institutions throughout the country. The bathymetric and sub-bottom data generated, which includes areas of the ocean not frequented by UNOLS vessels, will be freely shared with the entire oceanographic community via submission to the NSF Research Vessel data archive, Rolling Deck to Repository (SEA has already begun to submit past data to R2R).

SEA is a member of UNOLS although the vessels are not part of the Academic fleet. SEA represents an important part of the Educational Infrastructure and funds are routinely awarded from NSF through both the Technical Services and Oceanographic Instrumentation Programs.

This proposal did not arrive in time for the panel. It was independently reviewed by email. Only one item was presented for review:

1) 2 ea Knudsen 3260 Echo Sounders

Broader Impacts: The acquisition, maintenance and operation of shared-use instrumentation allows NSF-funded researchers from any US university or lab access to working, calibrated instruments for their research, reducing the cost of that research, and expanding the base of potential researchers.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: | Award Amount: 203.25K | Year: 2011

This project improves the effectiveness of undergraduate teaching and learning in science through a new problem/project-based, field-intensive curriculum that integrates scientific research with its application in the construction of public policy. In the pilot semester-long program, undergraduate students address the largely unexplored but emerging issue of high seas conservation. The curriculum is modeling an innovative three-stage approach. During the initial discovery phase the students operate as a research team to develop a conceptual framework that identifies gaps in biodiversity research and in the methods used in ocean conservation. Students subsequently employ modern molecular and classic morphological techniques to accurately measure biodiversity during a month-long research cruise in the Sargasso Sea. In the final application phase, students synthesize their results, generating comprehensive science-based policy recommendations, and present and defend these recommendations to scientists and public stakeholders. This project seamlessly integrates research and education as students make significant contributions to long-term databases used by the international scientific community and tackle current global-scale environmental challenges. Students participating in this program not only acquire leading-edge technical sophistication in marine science research, but the wisdom, concepts, and skills necessary to effectively operate within the world of public policy. By changing the focus to local conservation topics, the curriculum is being adapted for use at other institutions, including those without access to the ocean environment.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: CHEMICAL OCEANOGRAPHY | Award Amount: 575.13K | Year: 2013

The persistence and physico-chemical degradation of plastics in the marine environment is increasingly recognized as an important though little understood problem with potentially broad scientific and public implications. To address this issue, a research team at the Sea Education Association (SEA) will conduct environmental exposure studies and analysis of plastic debris collected from the Pacific (over 11 years) and North Atlantic and Caribbean Sea (over 26 years) that have been archived by the SEA. With this study, these workers will address basic questions regarding the problem of plastic degradation and persistence in the sea. As such, the proponents are in a position to obtain potentially transformative results that will be of global significance. In addition to the broader scientific significance of an improved understanding of plastics degradation in the marine environment, this study will provide valuable opportunities for training undergraduate students and K-12 teachers.

Although hydrothermal vent systems have been intensively studied at mid-ocean ridges where ocean crust is being created, few such studies have been carried out in back arc basin spreading systems where crust is being subducted back into the mantle. This research assesses the chemical evolution of hydrothermal activity and its linkages to associated vent biology in one such back arc basin spreading center in the East Lau Basin. A unique series of time series fluid samples that were collected in 2009 will be analyzed for a variety of geochemical and isotopic species, including magmatic volatile species. These data will be combined with temperature measurements to examine the effect of acid volatiles on the evolution of hydrothermal systems overlying silicic magmas and how this influences the mobilization of metals. It will also be used to examine the role of seawater circulation in the ocean crust and its impact on the removal of CO2 via mineral precipitation. Broader impacts of the work include the support of an early career scientist, involvement of faculty and undergraduates from a college that serves economically struggling urban centers in southeastern Massachusetts, and engaging undergraduates involved in local summer sea-going programs. Hands-on learning modules for K-8 students will be created.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTRUMENTATION | Award Amount: 87.73K | Year: 2016

Sea Education Association (SEA) requests funding from the National Science Foundation to update existing oceanographic equipment in its sailing research vessel laboratories in order to continue training undergraduates in the marine sciences, and to further collection of data from under-sampled areas of the oceans for submission to national archives. The SSVs Corwith Cramer and Robert C. Seamans operate in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, respectively, supporting educational programs and oceanographic research. The equipment requested will be used by undergraduate students and collaborating scientists from colleges and research institutions throughout the country. All data generated will be freely shared with the entire oceanographic community via submission to the NSF Research Vessel data archive Rolling Deck to Repository (R2R). Although SEA vessels are not operated through the UNOLS umbrella, the organization has provided numerous examples of quality personnel both to the scientific and technical support communities. Financial support of their efforts is necessary to ensure this pipeline remains productive. This proposal requests fund for the following Oceanographic Instrumentation:

Two (2) SBE CTD packages $44,747
Two (2) LED epifluorescence packages $31,562
Two (2) UV/VIS Spectrophotometers $11,422

Broader Impacts
The principal impact of the present proposal is under Merit Review Criterion 2 of the Proposal Guidelines (NSF 13-589). It provides infrastructure support for scientists to use the vessel and its shared-use instrumentation in support of their NSF-funded oceanographic research projects (which individually undergo separate review by the relevant research program of NSF). The acquisition, maintenance and operation of shared-use instrumentation allows NSF-funded researchers from any US university or lab access to working, calibrated instruments for their research, reducing the cost of that research, and expanding the base of potential researchers.

Agency: NSF | Branch: Standard Grant | Program: | Phase: BIOLOGICAL OCEANOGRAPHY | Award Amount: 300.31K | Year: 2012

Plastic marine debris is a recent introduction to marine ecosystems resulting from the widespread use of polymers in consumer goods after World War II. The current global annual production of plastic is 245 million tonnes or 35 kg of plastic for each of the 7 billion humans on the planet, rivaling the combined biomass of all humans. Drifter buoys and physical oceanographic models demonstrate that surface particles passively migrate from the coastline to the central gyres in less than 60 days, illustrating how quickly human-generated debris can impact the pristine gyre interiors, more than 1000 km from land. Plastic debris has been implicated as a vector for transportation of harmful algal species and persistent organic pollutants, and provides a substrate for microbes that moves between environments and lasts much longer than most natural floating substrates. Despite increases in plastic production no significant trend in plastic accumulation has been observed since 1985. Physical shearing and photodegradation are known mechanisms of plastic degradation, but microbial degradation has also been implicated. Unpublished data employing pyrotag amplicon sequencing targeting bacterial and eukaryotic small subunit ribosomal RNA gene sequences, together with Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) data are consistent with the notion that plastic debris harbors a unique association of microbes including members capable of degrading plastic. The term Plastisphere describes this unique microbial community attached to and surrounding marine plastic debris and distinct from microbes in the surrounding seawater and on natural substrates such as macroalgae.

This project will: (1) characterize diversity through amplicon sequencing and comparative -omics combined with SEM and confocal microscopy to investigate the microbial composition of the Plastisphere; (2) describe function of the Plastisphere taking a cultivation-independent environmental DNA gene expression approach, as well as a cultivation-based approach to interrogate environmental clones and microbial isolates for the ability to degrade hydrocarbons; and (3) determine key biological factors that control the fate of plastic debris in the upper water column.

Intellectual Merit. Plastic is now the most abundant form of marine debris. Gaining an understanding of how plastic is affecting the very foundation of the food web in delicate open ocean environments is a first order question that will be addressed in this proposal and provides a base for an emerging research topic that has been identified as a high-priority research area. Understanding how microbes interact with plastic debris that accumulates in the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre and North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (two of the largest biomes on Earth) will provide a foundation for follow-up research questions such as: Do microbial biofilms provide sustenance for filter feeding zooplankton?; how is the abundance of plastic debris affecting the health of these delicate biomes?; and can a truly biodegradable plastic be formulated that will have minimal impact on the oligotrophic environment? With a growing human population and second and third world economic growth, it is inevitable that more plastic debris will find its way into the ocean and collect in convergence zones such as the gyres.

Broader Impacts. The field component of this project is built around independent research projects by undergraduate students participating in Sea Education Association?s SEA Semester research cruises in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In addition to mentoring SEA Semester students who will be collecting samples and helping with this project throughout the year, the project will engage faculty and students from the Caribbean region who are studying at St. Georges University in Grenada. Underrepresented minorities in the US will be mentored through the Partnership Education Program (PEP) program, the WHOI minority fellowship program, and the MBL REU Site program in Biological Discovery in Woods Hole. Outreach to the general public and K-12 teachers and students will be delivered through a dedicated website for the Plastics at SEA expedition in 2010 by adding a section that specifically addresses microbial ecology and the role of plastic marine debris in open ocean marine ecosystems. All members of the research team will contribute to a newly developed undergraduate curriculum in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation via lectures and participation aboard ship.

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