Sunday, May 25, 2014

Plastic Beach

Hello from the R/V Melville.  Newport, Oregon.

Just before breakfast, a slight haze hung over the mountains.  It was a comfortable morning with the sun's light reflected on the water.  In a pre-planned stop, a rescue boat was launched from the starboard side of the R/V Melville to pick up Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA-NWFSC) and Kathy Thornton (Univ. of Maine) from the harbor.  They will remain with us until the conclusion of the cruise on June 6th.  I had the privilege of working with them on two previous cruises in 2005 and 2006, in which we studied harmful algal blooms in the Pacific northwest.

Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA-NWFSC) meeting
Maribel Albarran (RTC-SFSU).

Kathy Thornton (Univ. of Maine) and
Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA-NWFSC)
climb aboard the R/V Melville with assistance
from A/B Ed Keenan and OS Paul Martin.
Trey Joyner received a note from home.
It was brought on board by Dr. Trainer.
There was a great deal of excitement for the arrival of Dr. Trainer and Kathy Thornton.  Hugs were exchanged on deck, and introductions were made as they were shown around the ship. Known for packing goodies--Dr. Trainer brought a duffel bag filled with chocolate, phytoplankton flash cards, and a package for Trey.  His package was mailed by his wife to Dr. Trainer's office in Seattle, and contained a dental appliance along with several messages from home.  I was standing next to him when he opened it and I could tell that it meant the world to him.

Guitar jam with Maribel Albarran
and Heather Richard.
Both are from RTC-SFSU.


I spoke this afternoon with Heather Richard (RTC-SFSU) to learn more about her plastic pollution experiment.  Heather is interested in the interactions of plastic in the environment.  Like other substrates in the ocean, plastic is known to attract the growth of organic matter, also known as biofilms. When plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, tiny ecosystems for microbial growth are created.  While microbial growth is common in the marine environment, it is the attraction of potentially toxic metals to organic matter growing on plastic that has her interested.  When plastic debris is eaten by organisms, the toxins are carried through the food chain, leading to biomagnification. While some toxins may sink and eventually become buried in the sediment on the seafloor, toxins bound to plastic will remain buoyant and will be carried along the surface by waves and currents. Birds and other animals may eat the contaminated plastic and take in the toxic metals.

Overhead view of Heather's
experiment in the incubator.
We cannot forget that plastic alone is known to kill thousands of birds.

Heather is showing me growth
within one of the bottles.
Mistaking plastic for food, birds ingest the debris, causing digestive blockages which eventually lead to death.  I recall a time when I took a class of students to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro, California.  A volunteer at the center showed my class several x-rays of dead birds -- revealing a large amount of trash eaten by the birds.  Plastic six-pack soda rings, fish hooks, and bottle caps were some of the items taken from inside the dead birds.  Then the volunteer reached into a box, pulled out some of those items and held them up to the x-rays.  This demonstration really got the attention of my students.  One student asked, "All of that was eaten by those poor birds?"

Heather is using bottles inside the incubator to culture an organic sludge. This sticky organic biofilm, secretes a sugary type of mucous that will bind metals and other toxic materials (such as DDT).  The sludge will then be introduced to 'virgin' plastic beads -- plastic that is free of dyes and additives.  Some of the beads will be free of the sludge, making them the control for the experiment. After six days in the incubator, the samples will be spiked with heavy metals, to simulate the presence of metals in the environment.  She will then use a dye and a microscope to inspect the surface of the beads.  Half of the beads will be analyzed for the amount of accumulated biofilm by using a spectrophotometer.  The other half will be put in acid, removing the metals from the beads.  Using an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer, she will quantify how much iron was bound to the beads.   This data can then be used to compare the relationship of iron bound to the biofilm.

The bottles are out so Heather can
add the plastic beads.
Plastic is a long-term problem, especially when it comes to the cycling of metals in marine environments.  Could there be a concern for the binding of metals in iron limited areas?  If so, how would this affect the production of phytoplankton biomass?  Could this affect marine food chains in the long run?  How will this affect fisheries around the world?  Recently, there has been concern over facial cleansing microbeads entering the ocean.  Used as exfoliants, microbeads are washed down drains and end up in our ocean.  Our clothing also contain many small plastic microfibers, that are removed when we wash our clothes.  We are unknowingly adding plastic to the ocean.

This seagull was perched on the R/V Melville.
Notice the plastic tangled around it's head.
Photo taken by Heather Richard.
I think back to when I lived in Long Beach, California.  Our beaches were littered with plastic, cigarette butts, and other forms of trash.  With every step I took, I felt something in the sand.  I used to think of it as a nuisance -- something that I didn't like to see.  I was aware of the problems that plastics cause to birds and other animals, but I never gave much thought to the impact that plastics have to binding heavy metals.  Plastic will photodegrade much faster on land than in water--breaking up a into many smaller pieces, eventually ending up in our ocean by gusts of wind.  We have to do a better job of keeping our beaches clean.


The temperatures have dropped off
the coast of Oregon, so Julia
Matheson (Western Univ.)
has bundled up.
As the evening approached, the skies grew darker and the clouds rolled in.  The temperatures dropped, as the setting sun peeked below the grey canopy.  For most of the day, we collected water form the iron "fish," a pump that is towed alongside the ship.  After the water collection, Rachel Vander Giessen (UW-APL), Chris, and I assisted Dr. Wells with retrieving the fish.  The strong current and wet rope made it challenging to pull it back on deck, leaving my hands numb and my clothes smelling like a fish market. Meanwhile, Dr. Trick (Western Univ.) and Dr. Wells (Univ. of Maine) were checking sensors inside of an on-deck incubator.  Dr. Cochlan (RTC-SFSU), Chris Ikeda (RTC-SFSU) and Brian Bill (NOAA-NWFSC) were setting up their next experiment in the bay of the ship.

Overnight, we will head toward Haceta Bank.  We expect the water to be high in iron concentration, but low in phytoplankton biomass.   We will perform our usual CTD casts to profile the area before moving toward our next station along the Oregon coast.  With twelve days left in the cruise, we know that it's going to get a lot busier.

Good night from the R/V Melville.

Thank you for reading.  We hope that you continue to check in on our scientific adventures.

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