After spending almost 70 days at sea, sailor Matt Rutherford and scientist Nicole Trenholm have finally made it to Japan, completing their Ocean Research Project adventure studying the floating garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean.
By trolling a net off their newly built W.D. Schock Harbor 29 sailboat at a constant speed of 3.5 knots for more than 7000 nautical miles, the dynamic duo gathered both debris and bacteria to study at a later date at Baltimore’s Underground Science Space (B.U.G.S.S.).
Rutherford and Trenholm were interested in studying the estimated 1.7 million particles of plastic floating per square in the Pacific Gyre. While plastics are certainly one of the biggest polluters of the world’s oceans, they also act as a transport for bacteria between continents. “It’s possible that a plastic bottle littered in the Chesapeake Bay could wind up in the indland Sea of Japan,” wrote Trenholm in her educational blog post aimed at middle schoolers, “bringing along uninvited hitchhiking bacteria that would be non-native, and could contain diseases that may threaten the well-being of the marine ecosystem and watershed.”
Rutherford elaborates: “Fifty percent of all the plastic found in the ocean comes from single-use plastic products (such as that coffee stirrer you used this morning, a straw, or fishing line). But recycling is expensive and takes a huge amount of energy, often taking away from its environmental effectiveness.” The best solution, he suggests, is “for single-use plastic to be designed to be benign, environmentally speaking, using truly benign bio polymers.”
Although his feet are now planted firmly on solid ground, Rutherford has no intention of making that a permanent thing. A partnership with the Smithsonian Institute will bring him back to the Bay to take on a bio-telemetry project tagging invasive species using his 42-foot schooner Ault as a mobile platform.
A 2015 expedition to study Greenland’s glaciers is also on the books, in partnership with the University of Maine Environmental Institute. Trenholm will be working with interns at the B.U.G.S.S. lab in Baltimore for the next several months analyzing the samples she compiled during the voyage. For more on Matt, Nicole, and the Ocean Research Project, visit oceanresearchproject.org.