DOWNTOWN — As part of their global study on ocean plastic pollution, the Santa Monica scientist couple of Dr. Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins recently returned from the Sargasso Sea with some startling news — plastic pollutants may be working their way up the food chain to humans.
The voyage, which began in St. Thomas and set sail from Bermuda on Jan. 8, lasted six weeks and took the pair to a sargassum seaweed mass directly between Europe and North America that, regardless of its distance from either coast, is full of plastic.
Although discussion of the plastic problem was once reserved for the north Pacific Ocean, Eriksen and Cummins are studying pollution’s widespread effects in all the world’s oceans through their 5 Gyres Project in conjunction with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation (AMRF). Cummins, 5 Gyres Project researcher and director, said a gyre is created by a series of currents and winds, which naturally draw debris. The couple’s research is funded mainly by Blue Turtle and AMRF, although the project has many other sponsors as well.
“The goal is to get data from all 5 gyres on plastic and with that to bring this issue to a global audience,” Cummins said. “What we are seeing now is that this plastic is starting to enter the food chain.”
The plastic found at gyres is often depicted as floating in patches. While recognizable items, such as bottle caps, flip flops and toothbrushes, are found at these sites, 5 Gyres Project co-director and researcher Eriksen disagrees with this description. While plastic is non-biodegradable, the UV rays at sea weaken the material, which is then broken down into small particles by waves. It is these pieces that foraging fish mistake for food, initiating the pollutants entrance into the food chain.
“I wouldn’t call either of them a patch, it’s more like a soup,” Eriksen said. “The majority of the mass is fragmented stuff that peppers the water coast to coast.”
Another issue the plastic centers raise is their ability to attract other pollutants. The plastic acts like a sponge, drawing in toxic chemicals used on land that have gotten into the water. Because of this attraction, one piece of plastic debris contains a million times more pollutants than the water particles around it, Eriksen said.
The pair are on the cusp of cutting edge science, and spent their time on the voyage researching the toxicity of marine life ingesting plastic, the potential harm this causes humans and the effect this will have on future generations.
“The ultimate story of this whole plastic issue is, are we leaving a toxic legacy?” said Eriksen.
While on their recent voyage, the couple agreed on the most fascinating object they found. A fish swam into a plastic jug as a baby and, while inside, grew too large to get out. The fish now swims around with most of its body stuck inside the jug, with only its tail free to propel it.
Eriksen said the only way to stop continued harm like this is through legislation. Bans on plastic bags or fees for their use are good steps, he said, but an effective recovery and reuse system is needed. The couple now plans to continue their work by visiting the remaining gyres, while continuing raising awareness here like they did last year during a bike tour along the Pacific coast, handing out ocean samples to local leaders.
“To put a sample of the ocean in [their] hands … they see it, they get it, they want to do something about it,” Eriksen said.
During the cycling tour last spring, the couple did make some time for fun. They stopped to get married in Big Sur — fittingly wearing outfits designed out of plastic bags.