Project Kaisei Team Talks Trash

August 31, 2009
“I've been exposed to the ocean from the earliest part of my life; but I've also seen my playground, my own back yard, and our planet Ocean being trashed. That has to change." - Jean-Michel Cousteau

On Tuesday, September 1, 2009, I was invited to a press event to welcome back the team of scientists, environmentalists, government representatives, documentary film makers and ocean lovers who were aboard the Project Kaisei sailing vessel for a month's voyage to the North Pacific Gyre and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As I addressed the crowd, I told them my personal story of my dad pushing me overboard when I was seven years of age, and thanks to that, I've been exposed to the ocean from the earliest part of my life; but I've also seen my playground, my own back yard, and our planet Ocean being trashed.  That has to change.  

Marine debris is one of the most ubiquitous and insidious problems currently facing the oceans and this problem is not new to me or to my OFS team.   While on expedition in 2003 to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, now known as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, we witnessed firsthand the direct impact that marine debris is having on fragile island ecosystems.   Not only is this debris washing up on isolated beaches and becoming entangled in delicate coral reefs; tons and tons of small plastic objects are also ingested at sea by sea birds especially by Laysan and Black-footed albatross, because the pieces either look like squid, one of their favorite foods, or because it has oily fish eggs attached to it. Flying hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to feed their chicks on these remote islands, the parent birds regurgitate these human-made objects to their chicks.  

We now know these plastic items are not only mistaken as food by many different marine species; but plastic breaks down into smaller pieces from the sun and salt water and, in the process, harmful chemicals, such as Bisphenol A, a hormone-disrupting chemical used in plastics, is leached into the surrounding water.

It does not matter if we live at the coast or inland, we have to stop using the ocean as a garbage can; our automatic response of throwing stuff away is now coming back to haunt us and impact every square mile of this planet.   What we have done in error, we can fix. Our wasteful lifestyle of over consumption is impacting life in even some of the most remote places in the ocean. No longer is it out-of-sight, out-of-mind.   Thanks to the hard work of the entire Project Kaisei team and other research expeditions, we can now direct our attention to turning the tide on marine debris and become part of the solution.

After the first successful expedition of Project Kaisei and in collaboration with the graduate student-led Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) aboard the Scripps research vessel, New Horizon is now complete; the scientists will turn their attention to analyzing the hundreds of samples and assessing the impacts of marine debris on sea life.   The ultimate goal of Project Kaisei is to determine how to capture the debris; study the possible retrieval and processing techniques that could potentially be employed to detoxify and recycle these materials into diesel fuel.

For more information visit Project Kaisei or the Science Team.

Learn more about Marine Debris.

Jean-Michel Cousteau