Ocean News

Pioneering Research Voyage to Study Growing Problem of Plastic Pollution in World’s Oceans

8th May 2014

7,000-Mile Pacific Ocean Journey Will Test Limits of New Sailboat and Her Crew of Two; Recent Events Shine International Spotlight on Marine Debris

Renowned offshore sailor Matt Rutherford and field scientist Nicole Trenholm have departed on a nonstop sailing research voyage from Oakland, Calif., to Fukuoka, Japan. By deploying a high-speed trawl net off the side of their 29-foot vessel while underway, the expedition, which is conducted by the nonprofit Ocean Research Project, will embark on the first-ever continent-to-continent survey of plastic marine debris in the world’s oceans.

The specially designed net has limited drag. It will scoop up small pieces of plastic trash and plastic debris floating on the surface of the Pacific. Once the trip is complete in the summer, the debris will be catalogued and studied at onshore labs to help better understand the impact of plastic debris on marine life and on human health.

“When we cast off we’ll be attempting something that’s never been done before. The ocean is a vast and wild place, but unfortunately it’s not pristine. Human impacts can be seen even thousands of miles from shore. Our survey will help us understand just how much of an impact we’re having on the water that covers the majority of the planet, and on the countless species of marine organisms that depend on healthy oceans for their survival,” Rutherford said.

Although the expedition vessel is a W.D. Schock Harbor 29 day-sailor designed primarily for inshore waters, the trip is expected to take at least 70 days, and cross about a quarter of the globe.

Events in recent years, including the 2011 Japanese tsunami and the ongoing search for the missing Malaysian jetliner, have brought new attention to the problem of marine debris, both large and small. This is Ocean Research Project’s second offshore plastic debris survey in which they spent 80 days and 7,000 miles collecting data. A 2013 expedition to the North Atlantic gyre turned up as many as 200,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer.

“The trip itself represents only half of the project. After we gather our samples and dock in Japan, we’ll then spend months analyzing the plastic in both Japan and back home in the U.S. Sailing across the Pacific Ocean will be a big adventure, but what we learn in the lab will be equally thrilling,” Trenholm said.

Samples will be analyzed for organic pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides through the University of Tokyo’s International Pellet Watch Program. Samples will also be processed at Baltimore Underground Science Space.

Throughout the trek, Maryland middle school students will build a BLOG based on the marine plastic debris problems & solutions with the guidance of the offshore team to be posted on both the Ocean Research Project and MD Sierra Club’s website. Post expedition, Maryland high school interns will join the team and help analyze the samples.

The trip will be the longest marine plastics survey in history. The departure date is scheduled to follow after the Strictly Sail Pacific boat show in Oakland, and to take advantage of prevailing trade winds this time of year. The planned route skirts to the south of Hawaii before turning northward toward Japan.


Ocean Research Project is committed to serving the ocean research community. We provide data that explores man’s relationship with our planet’s oceans. For more information, visit www.oceanresearchproject.org