Then we came upon a bucket. Anna and John brought it aboard, only to find something violently wriggling inside. There was a trigger fish far larger than the opening of the bottle! Who know how long it had been in there, destined to be entombed there. We found plenty more pieces of plastic – toothbrush, crates, buckets, bottle caps, shoes, glove, plenty of fishing gear, and a boxing mouthpiece. “What are you going to do with the fish?” someone asked. I explained that one question we want to find out is, “Who is eating plastic bottles?” We would keep the fish for stomach analysis, but only if I promised not to waste the fillets, which we later ate for dinner.
Trigger fish have a really bad overbite. The teeth of a trigger fish are designed for biting little things. They have small sharp teeth that can snatch a shrimp from the sargassum, or a barnacle from floating debris, or a triangular fragment off a plastic bottle. Looking closely at the bite marks on a plastic bottle, one can see two little dimples above the triangular bite. These are the two upper teeth. The lower teeth, oriented to form a sharp triangular edge, rip a fragment off the bottle.
Though we haven’t observed this, the teeth seem to match the bite marks. There are no other fish present. I don’t think small birds or turtles have the power to be contenders for this feat either. I’m confident we’ve identified another species of fish mistaking our plastic waste for food. One more reason why we need to rethink how we use plastic.
A: Hi Jerie, Anna here, thanks for your message. We knew we’d find plastic in the Sargasso, but we weren’t sure exactly how much. We’ve been to the North Pacific Gyre to study plastic with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, and have seen everything from toothbrushes, suitcases, toys, and plastic bottles floating in the middle of the ocean.
Though this is our first time in the Atlantic, other people have studied the Sargasso Sea, and we know they have found areas around Bermuda and the Virgin Islands where plastic pollution floats, getting trapped in Sargassum, a brown algae that floats on the surface of the Sargasso. Now we’ve had a chance to see for ourselves, and sadly we’ve seen a lot of plastic here as well. Just yesterday, we came across a few big patches of this Sargassum, with tons of plastic trapped tangled inside – bottle caps, shoes, shotgun shells, crates, buckets, a toothbrush – even a plastic mouthpiece for a boxer! It was a lot like what we’ve seen in the Pacific.
Good question about how we deal with the Sargassum: as you can imagine, our samples are often full of this seaweedy plant after dragging our nets across the surface. So we’ll dump our entire sample into a large bucket, wash the plastic particles off, strain all the plastic into a cloth bag, and freeze it. Though it can be time consuming, the best part is seeing all the strange and beautiful creatures that live in the Sargassum – tiny squid, shrimp, flying fish, baby eels, and other amazing organisms – we’ll write more about these later.
Q: Hi, My name is Karleen and I just wanted to ask How old I have to be, to be a part of this crew? I would honestly love to be a part of this! It's amazing what you guys do. It's a wonderful thing actually, saving the sea creatures who are in need sounds exciting, except the part where you see them with a stomach full of plastics... So what do I have to do, to be a part of this? It's a really interesting and cool organiztion actually.. It's amazing how that turtle survived after 7 years with that peice of plastic around it. It is truly wonderful for you guys to help all the sea creatures who are in need of help. You guys are wonderful =D George Washington High School, Mangilao, Guam /Junior/Karleen.
A: Hi George Washington High School! Karleen, thanks so much for your message, great to hear that you’re interested in this kind of work! You’re never too young to get involved in environmental issues – and we’d love to work with you and your school more directly. Our youngest crew member right now is 19 – after graduating from high school, he decided to spend a year learning about ocean issues and doing research on a sailboat before going on to college. But you don’t need to be 19, or spend a year at sea....
The best thing you can do is start learning on your own – do some research on the internet, talk to your teachers, ask lots of questions, find some articles/books and see what you can find out about ocean issues. Then you might see how you can make some changes in your school or community - talk to other students, and share what you’ve learned. We’ve worked with two school groups in Los Angeles – Green Ambassadors and Team Marine that might have good ideas for you – let us know if you’d like to get in touch with them. Next year, we’re having a big conference in LA, bringing young people together from around the world to talk about plastic pollution. Maybe you can join us, so do keep in touch!
Q: Why are only some plastics made biodegradable? Also, how long do you normally leave the trawls in the water, and what are expecting/hoping to find on this trip? Christina-11th grade-River Ridge High School, Florida
A: Hi Cristina, Biodegradable plastics sound like a perfect solution, but there are still some problems with them. First, most bioplastics are not designed to break down in the ocean – they need a very hot, commercial composting environment. Also, bioplastics are generally made from GMO crops that are grown with pesticides and herbicides, which create other environmental problems. And bioplastics are still more expensive to produce, so many people want the cheaper option of petroleum plastics.
Still, as more people figure out innovative ways to make environmentally friendly, marine degradable plastics, they will start to become cheaper. Your best bet is still to use reusables, and avoid single use plastics when you can.
As for our trawls: we’re hoping to complete a “mega transect”, sampling at least every fifty to one hundred miles, and leaving our nets out for three hours at a time. When we pull them up, they are usually full of Sargassum, bits of plastic, and a bunch of fascinating marine creatures.
Responses from crew member Anna Cummins