Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Great Pacific Garbage Chowder

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: it's flashy, disturbing, simple, a great band name, and... is completely misleading. That name was given to an area in the Pacific ocean by Curtis Ebbesmeyer when a colleague reported on the amount of floating plastic in the area. Because the name is so catchy it stuck, and has been used extensively in popular media reports ever since. So what's it look like? Well prepare yourself, below you're going to see a picture from the very heart of this trash zone that's been described as having a surface area twice the size of Texas.

Where's all the garbage?
Courtesy:  ---=XEON=--- via Panoramio

The problem with the term patch is that it suggests a covering, like in a patch of grass; or a lot of big pieces, like in a cabbage patch. Neither of these is what you see in these areas. Really what's happening is that giant ocean currents, called gyres, are concentrating tiny bits of plastic (called microplastic) in their middles. The gyres are more like plastic chowder than a plastic patch. And just like in a chowder the chunks aren't evenly distributed. Different types of plastic have different densities, so they float at different heights in the water column or even sink to the bottom.

This is the North Pacific Gyre. There are two major gyres in the Atlantic and Pacfic,
 and one in the Indian Ocean
Courtesy: NOAA Ocean Service's Making Waves podcast

So why isn't the plastic more evenly distributed, or at the very least why isn't it close to land? Well it has to do with the fact that the gyres are circular currents. When particles sit in water they are partly held up by how fast the water is moving. In swirling water, like the gyres or a cup of tea being stirred, the water at the center is moving slower than the water at the edge. Particles catch on the slow water and are pulled into the center where they stay more or less still.

 Red sprinkles in water before, during, and after stirring: Some sprinkles float, others sink; all concentrate into the center; just like pieces of plastic caught in the ocean gyres.

There are a number of issues associated with plastic in the ocean, and all originate with the fact that plastic doesn't biodegrade. Plastics are designed to last forever; they're stable, cheap, and sturdy. When we throw out plastic it never turns back into the minerals that it came from. Plastics just continually degrade into smaller and smaller pieces, but they stay plastic for functionally forever.
The first problem is that plastic takes up space. Several studies over many years have led to calculations of about 35,000 tons of microplastic and 250,000 tons of larger plastics in the oceans. All of those bits can easily lead to entangled marine animals.

The other big issue is that act of breaking down. As plastics break into smaller and smaller shards they're inadvertently gobbled up by smaller and smaller organisms, entering the food chain at more levels. While they're breaking apart and mixing around in the ocean, the chemically raggedy edges of the plastic grab onto many of the toxins commonly found in sea water. This takes those chemicals from their spread out, and therefore less dangerous, state to concentrated on one of these bits. Some of these toxins are hormone disruptors and there's a growing body of evidence that they can and will affect fish by changing their reproductive organs to those of the opposite sex.

Lastly, when plastic breaks down it becomes much harder to clean up. Imagine trying to separate all the parts out of real chowder, including the spices. Some of it can be picked out pretty easily, but others not so much. The microplastics are so small that we can't go out and grab it all because we'd have to screen the water with nets with really tiny holes. Nets with tiny holes are also how you catch plankton, so to catch the estimated 5 trillion bits of plastic out there we would probably decimate plankton populations.

"A few billion more of these and we can save and destroy the ocean at the same time"
Courtesy: NOAA Photo Library via Flickr

There's also the problem of some plastic sinking. For years surveys of ocean plastics weren't finding as much as researchers expected, but we knew that our waste was making into the ocean, so where was it all going? Well it turns out, straight to the bottom. A three ocean study of deep sea sediments has found significant amounts of microplastic fibers in the depths. A lot of these fibers were rayon and acrylic, materials found in synthetic clothing that probably got into the water from particles coming off as the clothes were washed.

Alright if we can't clean up everything then what do we do? Well the beautiful thing about this issue is that it's entirely in our hands. There isn't a single company or government that has caused all this pollution, so there's no one to fight with to make it stop. We are so powerful in this situation it's unprecedented. The most important thing is to stop using plastic like it has a short life. That tupperware you or your parents bought in the 70's and is still in your kitchen; that's how plastic should be used. Keep that sucker around forever and hand it down to your kids too. Those Legos that have been dropped, washed, stepped on, pummeled, and still haven't broken. Hell yeah that's my kind of plastic. Where you can, eliminate single-use products, and when you're out walking pick up a piece of litter each time. If we do these things we can make a dent in the 30% of all plastic that gets thrown away within a year.

I have to give credit to Edward Humes, author of Garbology for the term "plastic chowder" it really is a perfect metaphor.


Cozar et al., "Plastic Debris in the Open Ocean", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 11 No. 28, 2013, DOI 10.1073/pnas1314705111

Ericksen et al. "Plastic Pollution in the World's Oceans: 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea", PLOS ONE, 2014, DOI 10.1371/journal.pone.0111913

Woodall et al, 2014, "The Deep Sea is a Major Sink for Microplastic Debris", Royal Society Open Science, 1:140317,

Rochman, Chelsea, "A Story About Fish, Plastic Debris, and Sex", Deep Sea News, 2014,

Humes, Edward, "Garbology", Ch. 5-6, Penguin Books, 2013

Friday, December 19, 2014

Over 1000!

Imagine my surprise when I logged onto the blog this morning and saw that Depth and Taxa has surpassed 1000 page views! I'm pretty sure my face looked something like this.

I appreciate you all sharing in the exploration of the marine environment with me. This blog has only been active for four months, and I never expected it to get to this point so fast. To everyone in the states, and the folks around the world who have been learning along with us,

Thank you, Dziekuje, Merci, Danke, Tesekkur ederim, Gracias, Dankjewel, Diakuju, and Spasibo.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Notorious B.I.G.

"Where does everyone keep getting that number!" I shouted irritably one day while doing some research for the Seattle Aquarium. I was profiling the giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) and the number that kept coming up was 272Kg/600Lbs. Don't get me wrong, giant Pacific's are well named. They're the largest octopus species in the world, and they can be massive. The largest animal I ever encountered was an octopus named Roland who weighed over 90 pounds and he had an arm span above ten feet.

Giant Pacific octopus also grow incredibly fast. They're short lived, only lasting 3-5 years in the wild, and they go from the size of a grain of rice to broader than a man's height in that time. It's been estimated that they average a gain of 1-2% of their body weight every day. They literally grow exponentially. A well-fed octopus gets bigger today than it got yesterday, and will get bigger tomorrow than it got today.

What had me so flustered about that 600 pound claim is that most giant Pacific octopus never get any bigger than 70 pounds, and the reliable accounts of extremely large animals only weighed around 120 pounds. I found article after article that referenced that size, in both the popular press and the peer-reviewed literature. Six hundred pounds is so far off from what's normally their maximum that I began thinking fish stories might not always be about fish. Many articles even acknowledged that any account above 120ish pounds was probably unreliable.

"I swear it was like two people across!" (Person in this example is defined 
as one elementary aged child) 
Courtesy LAZLO ILYES via Flickr

     Of course it's not not unheard of for a population of animals to shrink over time due to human influence. For example, the dusky grouper (Epinephalus marginatus) from the Mediterranean, is thought to be much smaller than before modern fishing pressure. In ancient Roman murals dusky grouper are portrayed as almost as large as a man, now they rarely get bigger than around 50cm (about 19 inches). Giant Pacific octopus on the other hand haven't really been a targeted catch thanks in part to their chewy texture. It could be that pollution has affected the health of these species, but the reports of truly giant octopus were claimed to be from Alaska where human impact is less significant.

Alright, so where did this number come from? Well lucky for our quest to discover the origins of the "super giant Pacific octopus, TM" , science has a spectacular convention of citation. At the end of every peer reviewed article the authors are expected to cite previous research that informs their experiment and is the basis of their prior knowledge. You can think of it as a built-in BS alarm.

Statistical analypus thinks you should have used an eight tailed test.
Courtesy canopic via Flickr

So I took the opportunity to put on my detective cap and dig around some scholarly research! I have friends I swear, they're humans and everything. Anyway after a little leg work (keyboard work?) I managed to track down the source of the 600 pound octopus in the room. It turns out that in 1975 William High wrote a summary of knowledge about giant Pacific octopus for the National Marine Fisheries Service's annual report. This article was cited by almost every paper I had been looking through, so I suspected it was what I needed. Thankfully the good folks at NOAA keep an online archive of these reports.

In High's summary he discusses how large these animals can get and even he doesn't totally buy the hype at first. He states: "Much larger ones (octopus bigger than 100 pounds) have been reported, but like the Loch Ness Monster, these usually elude the careful photographer or scientist." which is basically the scientific paper equivalent of "cool story bro." But then just a few lines later he goes on to say: "In the late 1950's I interviewed a Canadian commercial diver Jock MacLean... He reported capturing an immense creature weighing 600 pounds and measuring 32 feet from arm tip to top. MacLeans photographs, unfortunately, were of poor quality. Smaller animals, to 400 pounds, were occasionally taken..." Seriously!? Poor quality photos and the testimony of a guy whose job it was to go and get narc'd all the time are all we're going on. You'll have to forgive me if I remain skeptical.

"No you can't be real! The scientific literature doesn't substantiate 
your existence!" -The ship's naturalist
 "Denys de Montfort Poulpe Colossal" by Pierre Denys de Montfort († 1820)
 - Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Robert Hale Ltd. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons  

Sadly it looks like the reports of "super giant Pacific octopus ™" have been exaggerated, even among those who try hardest to avoid hyperbole. Although I can't help but wonder; why is a giant octopus such a universal story? From the legends of the kraken to the creature that supposedly lives under the narrows bridge in Tacoma, Washington; monstrous octopus just capture our imagination. Maybe long ago there were octopus large enough to destroy a ship, or maybe having no frame of reference in the vastness of the ocean led to exaggeration. Either way the real giant Pacific octopus is a huge, magnificent creature that deserves our respect.


Cosgrove, James, & McDaniel, Neil, "Super Suckers: The Giant Pacific Octopus and Other Cephalopods of the Pacfic Coast.", Harbour Publishing, March 2009

High, William, "The Giant Pacific Octopus", Marine Fisheries Review, Vol. 38 No. 9, Sept. 1976
Accessed via:

Guidetti, Paolo, & Fiorenza, Micheli, "Ancient Art Serving Marine Conservation", Frontiers in Ecology and the Enironment, 9: 374-375, DOI 10.1890/11.WB.020