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Surging Plastic Pollution in Oceans Revealed by Plankton Research Equipment

Oceans
A phytoplankton bloom in the Gulf of Alaska on June 9, 2016. NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center

By Julia Conley

The equipment was towed across millions of miles of ocean for six decades by marine scientists, meant to collect plankton — but its journeys have also given researchers a treasure trove of data on plastic pollution.

The continuous plankton reporter (CPR) was first deployed in 1931 to analyze the presence of plankton near the surface of the world's oceans. In recent decades, however, its travels have increasingly been disrupted by entanglements with plastic, according to a study published in Nature Communications on Tuesday.


"The message is that marine plastic has increased significantly and we are seeing it all over the world, even in places where you would not want to, like the Northwest Passage and other parts of the Arctic," Clare Ostle, a researcher at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England, told The Guardian.

The CPR originated in northern England and has been continuously towed by boats across more than 6.5 million miles of ocean for more than 60 years.

It was first disrupted by plastic entanglement in 1957, when a fishing line got in its way. Eight years later the CPR ran into a plastic bag. The disruptions became increasingly common in the following years.

By the 1990s, two percent of the CPR's missions were disrupted by plastic pollution — mainly discarded nets and other fishing equipment, as well as other plastic products.

The rate of disruption is now between three and four percent, according to scientists at the Marine Biological Association and the University of Plymouth, who compiled the research.

The CPR is pulled by boats at a depth of about 22 feet (7 meters) below the ocean surface, where many marine creatures live — confirming earlier studies which have found that marine life has been increasingly threatened by plastic pollution.

"The realization that plastics are ubiquitous, and that the consequent health impacts are yet to be fully understood, has increased the awareness surrounding plastics," the report reads. "There is a need for re-education, continued research, and awareness campaigns, in order to drive action from the individual as well as large-scale decisions on waste-management and product design."

"The dataset presented here," the authors said, "is an important historical record for the continued monitoring of plastics in the ocean, and confirms the importance of actions to reduce and improve plastic waste."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

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If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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