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Record-Breaking Pacific Ocean Clean-Up

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Ellie Chivers reports on a recent clean-up in a 1.6 million square kilometre rubbish patch in the Pacific Ocean.

Photo by Silas Baisch

After a long 48-day expedition, the non-profit organisation Ocean Voyages Institute has made history by carrying out the most expansive ocean clean-up ever, recovering a staggering 103 tons of waste near Hawaii.

This record-breaking operation removed fishing nets and plastic debris from the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone.This specific area of the sea contains the largest and most infamous accumulation of ocean plastic in the world, having coined the moniker of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’.

Situated halfway between Hawaii and California, the garbage patch is estimated to span over 1.6 million square kilometres, an area three times the size of France, and is formed by rotating ocean currents – or gyres – that pull detritus into its centre.  This operation begins what will be a slow and laborious effort to clear the plastic, as the accumulation contains an estimated 80,000 tons of rubbish in total.

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Managing the Monumental

Having been wrapped up in the wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic and being told to self-quarantine for three weeks before setting sail, those on the mission had already experienced a somewhat difficult and unique expedition before it even started. However, Ocean Voyages’ innovative approach to the clean-up ensured the operation continued with smooth sailing.

Designed in partnership with Pacific Gyre Inc, GPS satellite trackers were attached to fishing nets that were entangled with rubbish by volunteers on yachts. Voyagers then locate these nets and retrieve them.  One small patch often signals something larger looming in the distance, and the process continues. 

Why Is This So Important?

An overwhelming eight million metric tons of waste is dumped into the ocean each year. It has also been suggested that by 2050, plastic pollution in the ocean will outweigh its fish. Not only is that hugely saddening, it’s also very alarming, and could have more of an impact on human life than you may expect. 

“The oceans can’t wait for these nets and debris to break down into microplastics which impair the ocean’s ability to store carbon and toxify the fragile ocean food web.” – Mary Crowley, founder and executive director of Ocean Voyages Institute

Microplastics– which are formed when plastic breaks down into miniscule particles – can be consumed by marine life, and thus causing their stomach to absorb toxic chemicals. As the microplastics progress up the food chain, it is inevitable that humans eating the fish will absorb these harmful chemicals too. 

But the real pressing damage is being done to the ocean, and those who reside in it.  Plastics can easily kill fish, birds, marine mammals and sea turtles, thus threatening species.  Ocean plastic can also destroy habitats, potentially affecting animals’ mating rituals, and having further devastating consequences.

Clean-ups of ocean was is only one aspect of solving this gargantuan problem – the key going forward has to be prevention of ocean pollution in the first place. With further expeditions on the horizon, we can only hope the success of this most recent mission instigates a long line of effective clean-ups in the future.


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