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The Mediterranean Basin — a side sea of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by Africa, Europe and Asia — is the cradle of world civilization. It is a symbol of creativity, the search for the meaning of life and wisdom, and the love of people and nature. It has also bred outstanding people who have made remarkable contributions to the development of history in philosophy, art, music, literature, science and technology. One cannot imagine world history without the Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman civilizations. Times, however, have changed.

These days, about 320 million tourists are spending their holidays at the Mediterranean Sea each year. This tourism means a 40% increase in marine litter during the summer period above and beyond the 208-760 kg of solid urban waste produced annually by the 150 million people living by the Mediterranean basin.

Every year, 150,000 – 500,000 tonnes of macroplastics and 70,000-130,000 tonnes of microplastics enter European seas. Most of this waste ends up in the Mediterranean, where 18% of tuna and swordfish have plastic in their stomachs, particularly cellophane and PET; gaps in the waste management systems of most riparian states are the primary culprit.

Image courtesy of WWF

On the 8th of June, World Ocean Day, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) published an article stating that a nearly four times higher concentration of microplastic fragments could be found in the Mediterranean than compared to the plastic soup found in the North Pacific gyre!

A record-breaking number of 1.25 million microplastic fragments per square kilometer are floating in the Mediterranean Sea.

In addition, ocean sediments revealed concentrations at 10,000 per km2, which are amongst the highest worldwide. The Mediterranean is considered the sixth greatest accumulation zone for marine litter; this sea holds just 1% of the world’s waters, but concentrates 7% of all global microplastics.

From the 19th of May till the 15th of June, exactly during the time the WWF published their report, we undertook an expedition in the Ligurian-Thyrennian Sea with the aim to check for microplastics. Our expedition took us from Genoa via Elba to northern Sardinia and back again. For our journey, we joined the 5Gyres TrawlShare program to help feed their global estimate of marine plastic pollution database, to strengthen the awareness of our crew members, and to verify the abundance of microplastics in the Ligurian-Thyrennian Sea.

Image courtesy of Roman Lehner

Throughout the expedition, we took 35 samples, with the 60cm manta trawl out in the water for 30 minutes each time. The results we received were very clear and support the results published by the WWF. In each single sample, we found hundreds of fragments of microplastic particles with a different origin such as foam, fishing line, thin film or pellet.

 

Image courtesy of Roman Lehner

Our crew members were astonished every time we checked the samples, shocked to see first-hand such high concentrations of microplastics in the Mediterranean Sea. None believed that we would find that much plastic in total, let alone with each sample.

While the plastic soup found in the five gyres receives most of the media’s attention, the problem is everywhere – and the Mediterranean falls just behind as the world’s sixth biggest accumulation zone.

Europe, it’s time for change and action!

 

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