The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is known by several names, a reflection of its amorphous state of being in both size and politics. It is a high pressure area of the Pacific Ocean, located between Hawaii and the western coast of the United States. A circular ocean current, known as a gyre, swirls between California and Hawaii, formed from wind patterns and the rotation of the planet. It is here that all manner of debris is caught up and pulled inexorably toward the gyre’s center (a six-year journey for North American trash, only one for trash leaving Japan and the Asian mainland).
It is unknown how much trash makes up the Patch, nor how large the Patch actually is. Much of it is plastic, a substance that does not biodegrade and instead breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. This microplastic can’t be seen by satellites and can float on the surface, the middle or even deep beneath the water. It is known that up to 1.9 million pieces of plastic have been collected in a single square mile.
Captain Charles Moore first discovered this patch while sailing from Hawaii to California after a yachting race. The patch had long been predicted by oceanographers and climatologists but was not confirmed until the captain and his crew noticed the mass of trash and plastic clumping around his vessel. Capt. Moore has since formed the Algalita Marine Research Foundation to spread awareness of the Patch, a cause taken up by fellow organizations like the 5 Gyres Institute.
So far from any country’s coastline, the Pacific Trash Vortex remains unclaimed by any region, and so it continues to grow unchecked, harming the ecosystem around it. The trash blocks the sunlight from reaching plankton and algae below, which in turn feed the fish and turtles, which in turn feed the larger predators. In addition, creatures mistaking microplastic for plankton are poisoned by the toxins picked up by the plastic or die of hunger after packing their guts with inedible material.
Speaking to Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat, Captain Moore said, “We’re dealing with more than just a little bit of rubbish out there in a few places in the ocean. …Thirty-five percent of the fish that we caught out there had an average of two pieces of plastic in their stomach.”
Click here to hear more from Captain Moore.