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Holly, quoted in Rolling Stone!

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Holly is quoted in Rolling Stone Magazine in an article about The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (October 29, 2009, by Kitt Doucette).  The article talks about “a floating mass of trash twice the size of Texas that has turned the Pacific into an ocean of plastic, killing sea life — and working its way up the food chain…”

…”The concern is what the plastic is carrying and releasing into organisms that ingest it,” says Holly Bamford, who is launching a study of marine debris for the National oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Marine Debris Program at NOAA has recently posted a page on our website called:  De-mystifying the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” 

You can download the 1-pager on the “garbage patch” here (right click on the link and then click “save link as”), but here is some of what you’ll find:

What is the “garbage patch”?
The “garbage patch,” as referred to in the media, is an area of marine debris concentration in the North Pacific Ocean.  The name “garbage patch” has led many to believe that this area is a large and continuous patch of easily visible marine debris items such as bottles and other litter—akin to a literal blanket of trash that should be visible with satellite or aerial photographs.  This is simply not true.  While litter items can be found in this area, along with other debris such as derelict fishing nets, much of the debris mentioned in the media these days refers to small bits of floatable plastic debris.  These plastic pieces are quite small and not immediately evident to the naked eye.  For more information on this type of debris visit our page on plastics
Where is the “garbage patch”?
It appears that the “garbage patch” referred to in the media is within the North Pacific Subtropical High, an area between Hawaii and California. Due to limited marine debris samples collected in the Pacific it is still difficult to predict its exact content, size, and location.  However, marine debris has been quantified in higher concentrations in the calm center of this high-pressure zone compared to areas outside this zone. It should be noted that the North Pacific Subtropical High is not a stationary area, but one that moves and changes. This area is defined by the NOAA National Weather Service as “a semi-permanent, subtropical area of high pressure in the North Pacific Ocean. It is strongest in the Northern Hemispheric summer and is displaced towards the equator during the winter when the Aleutian Low becomes more dominant. Comparable systems are the Azores High and the Bermuda High.”

Is the “garbage patch” the only area where marine debris concentrates?
NO. There are several features within our oceans that concentrate marine debris, including oceanic eddies and convergence zones. See our page on Marine Debris Movement for more information.

How big is the “garbage patch”?
There has been extensive media coverage about the “garbage patch” over the past couple years; however, its reported size and mass have differed from article to article. Due to the limited sample size, as well as a tendency for observing ships to explore only areas thought to concentrate debris, there is really no accurate estimate on the size or mass of the “garbage patch” or any other concentrations of marine debris in the open ocean. Additionally, many oceanographic features do not have distinct boundaries or a permanent extent, and thus the amount of marine debris (both number and weight) in this zone would be very difficult to measure accurately. The “patchiness” of debris in this expansive area would make a statistically sound survey quite labor-intensive and likely expensive.

Regardless of the exact size, mass, and location of the “garbage patch,” manmade debris does not belong in our oceans and waterways.

What is being done to clean up the plastics and debris in the “garbage patch” and greater North Pacific?
NOAA has also been contacted regarding cleanup of the debris in the “garbage patch” and other areas of the North Pacific; however, cleanup is likely to be more difficult than it may seem.

In some areas where marine debris concentrates so does marine life.  This makes simple scooping up of the material risky–more harm than good may be caused. Remember that much ocean life is in the microscopic size range. For example, straining ocean waters for plastics would capture the plankton that are the base of the marine food web and responsible for 50% of the photosynthesis on Earth… roughly equivalent to all land plants!  Also, because this area moves within the North Pacific Ocean (a very large area), one can imagine the difficulty in finding large concentrations on a given day.

Is there a “garbage patch” in the Atlantic Ocean?
Much of the research on oceanic movement and concentration of marine debris has focused on the Pacific Ocean, possibly because these mechanisms lead to the accumulation, and thus impacts, of marine debris across the Hawaiian Archipelago. In particular, research has been done on the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, a known area of debris accumulation in the North Pacific. Additionally, perhaps due to the numerous protected species and resources within the Hawaiian Archipelago (e.g., endangered Hawaiian monk seal), research on threats, such as marine debris, tend to rise in priority.

This is not to say that marine debris in the Atlantic Ocean is not important. There has been research conducted and published on marine debris in the Atlantic, mainly on ingestion in Atlantic species of sea turtles and seabirds or on nearshore trawls for plastic particles. Still, there is a paucity of literature on marine debris in the high-seas Atlantic Ocean. Much like in the Pacific, there is a North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre made up of four major currents – North Equatorial, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic, and Canary Current. There is also a North Atlantic Subtropical Convergence Zone (STCZ); however, while it has been predicted to concentrate debris, we currently know of no research on debris concentration within this STCZ or of the existence of a notable “garbage patch”. 

Acknowledgement:  This information was compiled with the input and assistance of NOAA researchers, Hawaii longline fishermen, recreational boaters, and in particular oceanographers with the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.

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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