NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

Keepin' the Sea Free of Debris!

At-Sea Detection: Plastic Bag

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All of us were on the flying bridge. No, it’s not the Golden Gate doing a Mary Poppins’ levitation. It’s the top deck of our ship; it’s constructed on the roof of the bridge, which is where the ship’s officers steer the ship. I hope the sound of our footsteps overhead doesn’t interfere with their important job!

From the flying bridge you can see the distant horizon in all directions. The North Shore of O`ahu is off the ship’s stern. It’s a bit unsettling to see one’s home becoming hazy, blending with the clouds and then disappearing altogether.

No worries; O`ahu will be there to greet us when we return home. For the next 2.5 weeks our ship, NOAA’s Oscar Elton Sette, is heading away from O`ahu, traveling due north. One of our jobs is to scan the seas from ship to horizon looking for cetaceans (both whales and dolphins), sea turtles…and something that shouldn’t be in this open-ocean environment: marine debris.

Our basic protocol utilizes 4 observers:
• Two of us scan using either smaller, hand-held binocs or huge ones. The “Big Eyes” are mounted on adjustable metal posts that are bolted to the flying bridge.
• Another person enters data on a somewhat weatherproofed laptop computer.
• The fourth person will be used however needed. For example, she’ll use a camera to record scientists on board a small boat, launched from the Sette, to conduct experiments and retrieval operations around the marine debris. She’ll also photograph the debris itself.

I’m very excited to be a part of this investigation! This is the first time that such a major effort has been organized to record marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean! This is the Scientific Method in action! This is a part of science that non-scientists almost never see — the testing stage. We will need to be flexible and perhaps modify our protocol to get the maximum amount of useful data.

Look out; a piece of marine debris has been sighted! It looks like it might be a plastic bag, and that strikes me as an interesting coincidence. I’m on a NOAA marine debris email list, and every week there are links to news stories from around the world about communities switching from plastic shopping bags to reusable canvas bags. Here’s the reason why; in the midst of the intense royal blue of the North Pacific, here’s an ugly plastic bag. I wonder how many of these we’ll see in the next two and a half weeks?

Author: NOAA Marine Debris Program

The NOAA Marine Debris Program envisions the global ocean and its coasts, users, and inhabitants free from the impacts of marine debris. Our mission is to investigate and solve the problems that stem from marine debris, in order to protect and conserve our nation's marine environment, natural resources, industries, economy, and people.

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