Via Water Canada
March 8, 2013 by Saul Chernos
Message in a Bottle: Researchers sound warning about plastics in Great Lakes
When Dr. Sherri Mason and her team cast a net into three Great Lakes last July, scouring for debris, they weren’t sure what to expect. Mason, an associate professor of chemistry with the State University of New York (SUNY), had followed the ongoing saga of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other giant swirls of litter cluttering the oceans and wondered about the situation closer to home. Might the world’s largest body of fresh water be a significant contributor to an alarming phenomenon that has seen highly durable plastics literally stuff the bellies of birds, fish, and other sea creatures? Anxious about the impact that people living within this enormous inland watershed might be having on aquatic life, Mason secured funding, arranged for a boat, and assembled the resources and expertise needed to draw answers from the lakes’ often-choppy waters.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not alone in the world, and it is somewhat of a misnomer. There are two major garbage patches in the Pacific—one north, one south—and there are two more in the Atlantic, plus a fifth in the Indian Ocean. Each is located within a major gyre, subservient to its currents. Marcus Eriksen, executive director of the 5 Gyres Institute, has visited each of them, studying their effects on aquatic life. From microscopic bead-like molecules to entire cigarette lighters and water bottles, Eriksen has seen it all—and not always floating or captured in his nets. Three years ago, after finding dead birds with plastic extruding from their decomposing chests, he was moved to launch 5 Gyres to confront this emerging but increasingly striking environmental crisis.
Eriksen has always been a fighter. The New Orleans native joined the U.S. Marines and saw action in 1991 securing burning oil wells in Kuwait. Two decades later, conscious that plastics are derived from the very petrochemicals he once protected, he’s looking to combat consumer and industrial waste. “The shift was really just questioning what’s worth fighting for,” Eriksen explains.
Under Eriksen’s guidance, 5 Gyres members have sailed the world with fine-mesh nets and all the laboratory tools needed to identify microscopic particles. The one thing the group has lacked is permanent access to a vessel. So, when Mason arranged space aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara for three weeks to sample three Great Lakes and sought assistance from 5 Gyres, Eriksen was hooked.