Phase: On-location filming completed
Needed: Post-Production and computer graphics
Our Executive Producer Cynthia Matzke joined the Algalita Marine Research Foundation expedition aboard the Research Vessel Alguita. Her documentation for Spiral Pacific of this forty-seven-day journey through the Eastern Pacific Gyre shows that the ocean cannot escape human influence, even into the most remote regions on the planet. As consequence of our accelerated need for convenience, our use of plastic products and packaging has increased exponentially in the last decades. A gyre is an oceanic phenomenon where high-pressure systems and currents converge, creating a slow circulating mass, or vortex. The still, often windless conditions where things seemingly stalled out were called the doldrums by sailors. Human debris - primarily plastics - enter the gyre accumulation zone collecting into heavy concentrations. This is detrimental to humans as well as sea life.
Plastic is photodegradable meaning it breaks down in sunlight into ever smaller pieces, eventually forming into billions of micro-particles. Thus, the plastics never really leave the environment completely. The problem? Plastic is petroleum based. The chemical makeup contains toxic compounds that resist decay. The issue then becomes microplastic bits. In a 1999 Pacific survey the ratio found in samples taken was microplastics outnumbered plankton 6 to 1. That ratio in the last twenty years has since increased exponentially. When consumed by smaller fish the particles uplink the toxins into the food web. Once ingested by sea creatures plastic kills two ways: directly and indirectly. In some animals, it is swallowed. Particles that are too large to pass, or resistant to stomach acids, block the digestive track. The result is slow death by starvation. For example, sea turtles perceive floating plastic bags as jellyfish - one of their major food sources - and are often ingested causing a myriad of internal issues and possible death.
Plastic is also a bio-accumulator which acts as a vehicle to introduce toxins into the bloodstream and liver. As it moves up the food web toxins get concentrated into larger fish such as tuna and swordfish which then, in turn, are consumed by whales, dolphins, and humans. So while it may seem that plastic debris floating far out at sea would not have a direct consequence to our ecosystem, evidence points to exact opposite. An estimated 100 million marine animals die every year due to plastic debris in the ocean. As we depend on the ocean for our survival, we must rethink the cost of convenience - and our overuse of plastic.
Because the debris circulates but does not depart the gyre other phenomenon can occur. Our researcher documented derelict fishing gear and other castoffs entangling into snarled masses of floating synthetic waste. These “netballs” have been observed to form habitats colonized by near-shore coastal species, alien to this open ocean environment. If such invasive species were introduced into the geographically remote island chain of Hawaii, which is particularly sensitive to invasive species, an abrupt ecosystem shift could produce disastrous results.
The Spiral Pacific team will follow the trail as these toxins are transported out of the gyre via the fish that then enter into the larger global food web. This in turn directly affects the economy and health of the countries and sea life we explore in our travels.