By “research cruise” to the North Pacific Trash Gyre we meant “Technology beta test”

So the trouble with all the news about the North Pacific Trash Gyre — and I do mean all of it — is that it stems from a single source: the Algalita Foundation. Captain Charles Moore and his team have done cruise after cruise, taken all sorts of photographs, and written a lot of reports. They’ve hosted reporters from all over the world, including the Los Angeles Times and Vice Magazine. But they’re still a single organization with limited scientific expertise. So I was pretty pleased to learn back in November that NOAA would be organizing a full-scale research cruise out to the gyre using snazzy new unmanned planes, too. Science AND technology – my favorite!

Unfortunately, that’s not really what NOAA is doing. I called Holly Bamford, the program director for NOAA’s Marine Debris Program yesterday, just to see how everything was going with preparations (Bamford was quoted in the original San Francisco Chronicle article I read). She said they’re engaged in a two-fold plan, only one part of which has to do with the trash vortex directly. The first part is actually a test of the unmanned planes. In April they conducted a test flight in which the drone launched form a ship and flew 100 feet above the water looking for ghost nets. When it saw a big piece of debris, it took a picture, recorded the location information and transmitted the data back to the ship. But Bamford freely admits this technology won’t do much to add to our knowledge of the gyre because much of the gyre’s plastic debris is pellet-sized or smaller, and it often sits below the surface. And although the ship itself was doing a great deal of additional research, none of it was gyre related.

Bamford told me they’re not planning a cruise to assess the gyre at the moment. What they are doing is co-hosting a conference this fall (no date set) with the University of Washington-Tacoma.

“NOAA is going to host a workshop some time in the fall, bring together the best scientists across the world,” Bamford said. “These are scientists from Japan, Europe, America, and they’ll discuss the occurrence of micro-plastic in the ocean, what are the impacts by uptake of organic pollutants, and other questions. This is a big question, we want to investigate the overall problem. We are doing that.

In the meantime, I also have a call in to the engineer managing the test of the drones. I’ll report back if I learn something interesting.

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