DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Kimberly Weersing, right, of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and the University of Hawaii Oceanography Department, points on a map to where a team of researchers hopes to find a mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean. University of Hawaii oceanographer Tara Clemente, left, is the chief scientist for the 12-day voyage, which will start in Honolulu and head to California. They will conduct the first study of the effects of marine garbage on the microbial community, which makes up 98 percent of the ocean's biomass.
Marine garbage: UH TEAM researches effects of trash
University of Hawaii researchers will leave tomorrow on the UH vessel Kilo Moana for a 12-day look at the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" between Hawaii and California.
On the Net
» The group's experiences and research activities at sea will be reported daily at cmore.soest.hawaii.edu/.
UH-Manoa researcher David Karl believes the vast expanse of plastic debris represents a new marine habitat and says it's time to get "a full accounting" of its distribution, nature and impact on the marine ecosystem.
The "plastic soup" floating in the Pacific has received widespread media attention, but the only research to date has been mostly about the size, composition and quantity of the debris, said Kimberly Weersing of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and UH Oceanography Department.
Weersing, who is the science, education, outreach and public affairs officer for the voyage, said the expedition is going to allow the first research on the effects of the floating garbage on the ecosystem.
"Our focus is a little more fundamental," she said, noting plastic is being found in the stomach contents of fish and seabirds and could affect microbial communities as well.
COURTESY ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION
A handful of plastic debris is found worn down into confettilike particles Aug. 17 at Kamilo Beach on the Big Island.
"There are a lot of possibilities for how plastic might be affecting the marine ecosystem," Weersing said. "By targeting the microbial community, we can look at larger impacts on the system."
Microbial organisms make up 98 percent of the ocean's biomass, she said. They play a critical role in climate regulation and chemical cycles and they're important producers of oxygen, she added.
"Plastic could be acting as a novel substrate (surface) for microorganisms to attach to" in the open ocean, she said. It could be facilitating growth of organisms that potentially wouldn't be as abundant as other microbes, she said.
The pioneering "Survey of Underwater Plastic and Ecosystem Response" will be conducted by about a dozen Center for Microbial Oceanography graduate students, research technicians and educators.
"If we locate the patch and get some data, we will likely mount a return expedition in the not-too-distant future," said Karl, director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education.
Tara Clemente, UH-Manoa oceanographer and chief scientist for the cruise, said the goal is to locate and sample the microbial communities and biogeochemical properties associated with the plastic.
The North Pacific Gyre has been described as a clockwise-rotating mass of plastic debris stretching about 500 nautical miles off the California coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.
A raft called Junk, made of 15,000 plastic bottles, is sailing to Hawaii with two men from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, founded in Long Beach, Calif., by oceanographer Charles Moore, who discovered the "trash vortex." It is expected to reach here Wednesday.
Weersing said the raft has taken a more southerly route from the edge of the gyre and still detected plastic.
"We may have to revisit the idea of the plastic garbage 'patch.' It may not be a patch, but possibly a feature of the entire ocean," she said. "It is a major concern."