Marine debris is big problem in Atlantic Ocean

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Annapolis sailor-researchers Matt Rutherford and Nicole Trenholm on Aug. 15 completed an expedition to one of the most remote regions of the Atlantic Ocean to study the far-reaching effects of plastic marine debris in the world’s oceans.

The trip, aboard a 42-foot steel schooner sailboat called the Ault, lasted 80 days and approximately 6800 nautical miles interrupted with a critical engine repair stop in Bermuda.

The team sailed 73 of the 80 days with no sight of land, 26 of these days were spent completing a marine plastic survey of an area nearly the size of the state of Texas. They towed a 15-foot-long aluminum trawl net to collect microplastics congregating in a massive, swirl of water, of circulating currents called the Sargasso Sea or North Atlantic Sea Gyre and deployed 10 climate observation drifters both to and from the survey site. 

Rutherford, founder of the Ocean Research Project, the organization that along with 5 Gyres supported the expedition, and Trenholm, the science program director, are using the debris and data they collected to assist scholars and researchers who will help shed light on the growing problem of marine debris.

Rutherford and Trenholm surveyed more than 2,500 nautical miles of ocean, collecting 40 marine debris samples contained in 50 ml bottles. While the debris and data they collected will undergo further study at the Baltimore Underground Science Space and the University of Tokyo’s Pellet Watch Program, the Ocean Research Project’s initial assessment of the expedition’s findings make it clear: humans are having a major impact on the most remote, wildest stretches of the Atlantic.

“Marine debris is tiny, but the problem is much bigger than people realize,” said Rutherford, 32, who in 2012 was the first person to complete a solo, nonstop circumnavigation of the Americas. “We all need to think about where our trash ends up. The fact is that countless tons of plastics and other marine debris end up in the middle of our oceans. Over time it all breaks up into tiny, microscopic pieces. This kills sea life and fouls what would otherwise be a pristine ocean wilderness. The trip was an eye-opening experience, but there’s a lot we can all do at home to help our oceans.”