Saturday, September 29, 2007

More Answers to Student Questions

Here are answers to a few of the excellent questions that have been sent in. Keep checking back if your question hasn't been answered yet- more answers will be posted throughout this week, and questions that have already been answers might receive more comments. If you asked an important question that didn't get answered- go ahead and send it in again with a note that you are sending it for a second time. It is possible that your question didn't go through the first time- this is a new system and we are just getting used to it! Thank you all for your participation and fascinating questions!!

Questions and Answers

Hi my name is Cristina Toves and I am an 11th grade Marine Biology student at George Washington High School in Guam. I have a question regarding your current expedition.
Our class watched a video entitled "Our Synthetic Sea" which was based on one of your previous expeditions. At the time, the amount of zooplankton was 1 pound for every 6 pounds of plastic.
My question is has this statistic improved or has it got worse?
I would really appreciate an answer.
Thanks, Cristina

We would also like to know the answer to your question! It will take many hours back in the lab to analyze the samples collected on this voyage before we know how the numbers compare. Judging by Captain Moore's qualitative observations of the samples it unfortunately it does not look like the problem has improved at all. We will let you know how the results turn out after the lab work is done!

Hi my name is Shaelene, I go to George Washington high school on Guam.
And about the blog basically what is a ghost net used for because I never heard of it? And how long does it usually take you to get to where you want to go by boat?
I think the things that you are doing and experiencing is really neat and I would like to learn more about your experience....

A "ghost net" is the name used for a fishing net that was either discarded or lost at sea. The net continues to catch and kill marine life as it floats through the water. Here is a website where you can learn more about ghost nets

How long it takes to get somewhere in a sailboat is very dependant on the wind. Yesterday ORV Alguita was scheduled to arrive in Hilo on the 1st of October. Then the wind picked up from a more favorable angle- now the scheduled arrival time is the afternoon of September 30th.

Hi my name is Nico from George Washington High School and currently studying marine biology.
I was wondering what was the most interesting finding since your expedition began?

I will ask the crew tomorrow when they arrive in Hilo what the most interesting finding was on the entire trip. I would also like to ask that of you- of all of the experiences and findings that the crew shared what did you find to be the most interesting?

You can *smell* red tide??? I've seen these algal blooms along British Columbia's coastline at times, one summer being remarkable for such a widespread shellfish closure...every anchorage was rose-coloured... but I've never smelled it. Perhaps this is late in the bloom and there are a lot of dead cells decomposing on the surface??

Yes, at times red tides can be quite stinky (ask Florida residents they know.) Often the really strong odors are due to eutrophication caused by the red tide that leads to depletion of oxygen in the water and subsequently to the death and decay of many fish and other species.

Hello from Griffin, GA. We are wondering if most of the plastic found in the ocean is from large trash barges that dump their load miles off shore OR from manufacturers OR from the litter generated by everyday people that gets into the watersheds and eventually the ocean? Thanks!

Great question from Griffin Georgia. The answer is yes to all of the above! Researchers are asking the same question and are trying to determine the sources of debris in the ocean. One way to determine the origin of the debris is by identifying what it is. Plastic pellets (“Nurdles”) found in the ocean in horrible quantities have almost certainly escaped from the manufacturing and shipping process. And yes, a very significant quantity of the garbage found in the water is post consumer- much of which likely washed down the watershed as litter.

It's interesting to know that there are many plastics and jelly fishes that look alike. Which of the two did you find more often?

Great question. We may not have kept a count of plastic vs. jellyfish but after we analyze the samples we will know if we found more plastic than zooplankton by weight.

My name is Brianne and I am a student at George Washington High School. My Marine Biology teacher, Ms. Tatreau, has informed us that if we wished to ask a question, we may email it to you. We are currently studying the effects of plastic in our ocean, and how it affects us. My question would be, "After all the research your team has been doing, do you think we can ever find a safer way to dispose of all the plastic in the world? And what do you think will work as a substitute that is enviromentally safe?"

yours truly,

Brianne, your question is a tough one.
In the face of such an immense problem it can be hard to feel optimistic about solutions can't it? At the same time I don’t think any of us would be working so hard on the research if we didn’t have some hope that what we are doing can make a difference and that things can change for the better. Certainly it would be very challenging to find a safer way to dispose of all the plastic if we continue manufacturing so much of it. Much of the plastic that is being produced is being used for disposable products. There are companies that are making some of these disposable products such as cups and packaging materials out of plant based materials that are biodegradable. Of course, the most obvious environmentally safe alternative is giving up disposables. Much of the plastic waste that we generate is completely unnecessary. Why buy a new plastic bottle every time you want to drink water and unless you are in a hospital bed do you really need to drink out of a straw? Humans have survived just fine without plastic for the majority of their existence on this planet. If we were clever enough to invent plastic hopefully we can use our inventiveness to find a better alternative. That alternative may include inventing new products to replace plastic or it may be as simple as turning to old technologies that didn’t require the use of so much plastic. I think the answer may be both- what do you think?

Hi my name is Nico from George Washington High School and currently studying marine biology. I was wondering how will your research change peoples perspectives on plastics that are in the ocean?

Nico, we hope to change people’s perspectives on plastics in the ocean by sharing our discoveries about the quantities of plastic marine debris along with a better understanding of the problems caused by plastics in the marine environment. We will have to wait and see whether this strategy of sharing knowledge works to change perspectives. Probably the quickest answer will be to ask yourself “ did what I learned about ORV Alguita’s research change my perspectives on plastics in the ocean?”

The Chelmsford lions have asked many excellent questions. Here are a few answers with more to come!!!

The Chelmsford lions wanted to know if the crew can already differentiate between the different types of plastics they're finding. We know in our town recycling we sort by the number in the triangle. Are the plastics still in such shape that items that were given these numbers can still be seen on them?

Sometimes large enough pieces are found that we can still recognize the numbers indicating the type of plastic. It is also possible to run tests to differentiate plastic type. In many of our experiments we sort the plastic fragments by size and color and we are interested in what size and color of fragments tend to get eaten by sea creatures.

Does the crew have a hypothesis already on what numbers deteriorate fastest? Are you taking water samples with the plastic because a faster deteriorating plastic might give off chemicals into the water that might be toxic to some life?

Very close, actually the plastic tends to absorb the toxic chemicals from the water. Many of the persistent organic pollutants are molecules that are “hydrophobic” and not soluble in water. These hydrophobic compounds pass from the water into the plastic leading to much higher concentration of these pollutants in the plastic. This could be a problem when the plastic is eaten by marine animals. Some kinds of plastics do absorb pollutants more readily than others. Dr Rios will be comparing the quantity of pollutants in the water with the plastic to see how much the plastic concentrates the toxins.

Who decides what research projects your ship will undertake? Does the crew change with the assignment?

The boat does research on plastic debris through the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. The boat is also chartered out to different institutions to do various research projects. Last spring the boat was involved in a research project studying nesting seabirds in Mexico. The crew does change with the assignments but the captain is always the same!

Will any of the crew follow the plastic and do some of the testing on the plastic?

Absolutely! The plastic that is collected will analyzed back in the lab. Dr. Rios will take some of the plastic back to her laboratory at the University of the Pacific to analyze the Persistent Organic Pollutants that have absorbed into the plastic from the ocean water. Other samples will be sorted and weighed to come up with the ratio of the mass of plastic to zooplankton in a given volume of water.

Hi! I'm Keishia from George Washington High School in Guam. I waswondering if you had a reply for my previous question:"What has been the most interesting or strangest thing you have found thus far? And what measures are you taking to either promote it or solve it?"


The strangest animal seen was the Mola Mola- large creatures such as this in the Garbage Patch are unusual, and this was the first Mola Mola the Captain has seen in this region. The strangest piece of debris seen was a hockey stick!!

I would also like to ask you another question, I've heard from my Marine Biology teacher that your research journey is coming to an end. I would like to know is there any conclusion you have come up with on your findings? Thanks!

Keisha, analysis of the samples will take a long time! It will take months of hard work to separate the plastic from the zooplankton and for Dr. Rios to analyze the pollutants attached to the plastic. We will let you know what we find! Our qualitative observations of the samples lead us to believe that the problem of plastic debris has gotten much worse.

Question from Radford College Canberra, Australia. Does the Plastic Dust affect plants like the Giant Kelp?

Excellent Question, and the answer is that we don’t know. A high school student in San Diego did an excellent experiment looking at how plastic debris effected zooplankton and phytoplankton. She found that the plastic had a negative effect on the zooplankton but not the phytoplankton. Of course giant kelp is not planktonic for much of its life cycle. Do you have any ideas for an experiment that could be used to answer this question?

More Questions from the Chelmsford Lions;
We, also wanted to know how you knew this garbage field was there. Can it be seen be satellites? How would you know if you are in the middle of it or still heading in?

NOAA has used low flying aircraft with sophisticated camera gear to find larger debris such as ghost nets but the small fragments we study would be very difficult to detect from space.

We are studying the main ocean gyres and we were wondering if there is a garbage field within each ocean gyre. We were wondering if the Atlantic Ocean had this too!

Yes there are and they are connected by great debris highways. The gyres are like compressors that receive debris then spin it out. The “garbage patch” in the Atlantic is called the Sargasso Sea. To our knowledge no one has been following the debris amounts there since the 70’s- let us know if you can find any more information out!

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