Sailing towards a plastic-free Ocean: Microplastic survey and Ocean literacy during the Japan-Palau Goodwill Yacht Race 2019/2020

EarthzineOriginal, Plastics

Gorgeous sunset in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean: a typical evening view during our great adventure on the tall ship MIRAIE

Scientists and the sailing community teamed up to collect Ocean data on microplastics as part of the Japan Goodwill Yacht race

June 23, 2020

by Sanae Chiba
Senior Scientist, Marine Plastics Research Group, JAMSTEC, Japan

(This post is part of the Plastics theme for 2020, and related to our coverage on the UN Decade for Ocean Sciences)

Plastics are ubiquitous in the Ocean: in the polar seas, the sea farthest away from land, and the deepest trench that humans can hardly reach. There is growing awareness and global concern on marine plastic pollution, and its impact on marine ecosystems and the immense Ocean resources and services that we rely on. Initiatives and legislations are being implemented to tackle this problem worldwide. For example, the Osaka Blue Ocean Vision, set at the G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan, in 2019, aims to ”reduce additional pollution by marine plastics litter to zero by 2050 through a comprehensive life-cycle approach”.

Despite awareness on this problem developing momentum in society, we know only a little about the behaviour of plastics once these enter the Ocean - how plastics are transported from regional coasts to the open Ocean to deep-sea, and where and to what extent they are degraded and accumulated. Additional information is needed to understand the full extent of the threats posed by marine plastics pollution, and to implement effective management plans.

Ocean circulation carries plastics across the world, and therefore international partnerships are essential to understand such transboundary processes. While scientists are establishing an international marine debris observation network to monitor ocean plastics in a standardized way[1], the Ocean is too vast to be surveyed by research vessels under scientific organizations alone. It is becoming increasingly important to avail voluntary participation of the private sector, eg. commercial ships and pleasure boat communities to fill the knowledge gap on Ocean plastics.

Story Index
  • The Japan Goodwill Yacht race
  • Analysis results so far
  • Ocean Literacy component
  • Children - future ambassadors for sustainable use of Oceans
  • Steps moving forward, and impact of Covid-19
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The Japan Palau Goodwill Yacht Race

Gorgeous sunset in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean: a typical evening view during our great adventure on the tall ship MIRAIE

Gorgeous sunset in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean: a typical evening view during our great adventure on the tall ship MIRAIE. Credit: Sanae Chiba.

Scientists and the sailing community have been already teaming up and collecting Ocean data and samples including microplastics - during the Volvo Ocean Race 2017-2018, for example. One such opportunity “Sailing towards a plastic-free ocean” took place during the Japan Palau Goodwill Yacht Race 2019/2020. The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) in collaboration with the Yacht Race Organising Committee, conducted microplastic observation during the race. The racing yacht TREKKEE and race escort ship MIRAIE were equipped with semi-automatic samplers to collect microplastics across over 3000 km between Japan and The Republic of Palau. We, a research team of three women, were on board MIRAIE to operate surface net tows to collect additional samples.

The race route is set across the area near the Oceanic gyre in the western North Pacific where scientists predict to see a large accumulation of marine plastics originating from South-east and Eastern Asian countries. However, this region is currently under-surveyed. The survey aimed to fill the information gap in microplastics in this area and to understand its distribution process at a global scale. Because conventional microplastic sampling gear is a net with the mesh size around 300 micrometers, the distribution of the smaller particles is least known, despite the fact that these are present in potentially high concentration thus posing a large risk to marine ecosystems [2]. We used a microplastic sampler of the same design as was used for the Volvo Ocean Race, to make future comparison of the results easy. This machine can collect microplastics of three different size groups smaller than 300 micrometers. By analysing the data taken by the samplers and surface net tow conducted on MIRAIE at the same location and time, we hope to investigate the relationships between the distribution of larger and smaller microplastics. We will evaluate whether this relationship is strong enough, so that we can develop an algorithm to model the distribution of smaller microplastics using the more available data of larger microplastics.

Analysis results so far

The sail training ship MIRAIE escorted the yacht race, on which microplastic survey and ocean literacy programme took place.

The sail training ship MIRAIE escorted the yacht race, on which microplastic survey and ocean literacy programme took place. Credit: Toshihiko Tanaka.

Microplastics obtained are currently undergoing laboratory analysis at JAMSTEC. The preliminary analysis of the surface net samples shows microplastics are present throughout the cruise track; we easily spotted them by eye in 12 out of 14 samples. The exceptions to this were the last two tows conducted within the Marine Protected Area in coastal Palau, where organic matter dominated in the samples. The density of microplastics at offshore sites between Japan and Palau ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 particles per square kilometre, which is a similar value that was recorded around the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the eastern Pacific [3].  Although expected, the fact that we regularly observed microplastics at that density in the sea far away from any densely populated lands indicates microplastic pollution is widely spread over the western North Pacific due to the oceanic currents. Low microplastic density in coastal Palau may indicate this location is out of reach of the currents carrying microplastics at this time. Analysis of the rest of samples is needed in order to be able to draw more substantive conclusions from this microplastics research.

Ocean Literacy component

The other pillar of this project besides scientific research was the promotion of ocean literacy. Globally, there is a need to increase recognition amongst the general public of the impact of our behaviour on the Ocean, which is not limited to marine plastic pollution alone. Ocean literacy – understanding the Ocean’s influence on us and vice versa[4], is an important mechanism to address Ocean challenges with a human component. An additional partnership between the Yacht Race Organising Committee and the Republic of Palau enabled the participation of children aged 8 to 13 from Palau and their families to cruise on MIRAIE. The UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) partnered with JAMSTEC to design a tailored education programme about Ocean conservation for them. The intention was to help develop the next generation of Ocean leaders, equipping them with facts and skills, and getting them thinking about the various challenges that the Ocean is facing.

Microplastic sampler fitted in the engine room of MIRAIE. Yurie, who join the research team from a sponsor company YAMAHA Motor Co., Ltd., changing the filters.

Microplastic sampler fitted in the engine room of MIRAIE. Yurie, who join the research team from a sponsor company YAMAHA Motor Co., Ltd., changing the filters. Credit: Sanae Chiba

The curriculum was designed to align with the 'Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts of Ocean Sciences for Learners of All Ages'[4]. It outlined key issues facing the Ocean, such as climate change, marine pollution and overfishing as well as positive solutions to inspire everyday action. Problem-based learning approaches were used, with a range of different materials including quizzes, games and artwork. This allowed the students to take charge of their own projects during their time onboard, for example, by designing their own Ocean-friendly cities. As this programme was delivered alongside microplastics research, we provided opportunities for the children to engage with research activities, such as collection of microplastics using a net, sample handling and microscopic observation of plankton. This ensured that they could enjoy field and laboratory work and understand the roles of science in practical solutions for marine conservation challenges.

Children – future ambassadors for sustainable use of oceans

After the ship left Japan, we soon realized that the children already had an excellent knowledge on marine ecology and environments. They demonstrated a considerable engagement with the programme, and were keen to absorb concepts that were more advanced than typically expected of this age group, such as the function of Marine Protected Areas.

We had a couple of rough sea days, but the children enjoyed three weeks of the great adventure on MIRAIE. We were delighted and inspired with their passion to learn and their insightful questions, and more importantly leant a lot from them on how much lives of Palau people are intrinsically and culturally connected to the Ocean. Palau, which will host the high-level international policy conference “Our Ocean” in winter 2020 for the first time as a Small Island Developing State (SIDS), has been expressing its strong commitment towards the protection of the Ocean at various international initiatives. We hope the children will be the future Ocean leaders, not only for Palau but also for the international community. We hope they can deliver the goal of conservation and sustainable use of our Ocean in the coming decades.

Holly, ocean literacy lead of the team, teaching marine conservation to Palau Youth on ship deck.

Holly, ocean literacy lead of the team, teaching marine conservation to Palau Youth on ship deck. Credit: Sanae Chiba

Steps moving forward, and outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic

This project demonstrated successful partnerships between Ocean scientists and the sailing community, with the outcome of collecting scientific data and delivering an educational programme. Noting the scale of current challenges, and peoples’ desire to contribute to solutions, this collaboration presents a unique, engaging and enjoyable opportunity to further understand the scale of marine plastic pollution. This offers inspiration for future collaborations between the two communities to increase the social impact of the research, and to provide tangible actions to empower non-scientists to make a difference.

In January 2020, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) and the International Monohull Open Class Association (IMOCA) officially announced that they would launch a collaboration in the next two years for scientific research and to raise awareness on the importance of protecting the ocean environment. The initial focus of the agreement is collection of oceanographic and climate data. It would open up further opportunities for collaboration in microplastic survey, and the use of cost-effective, user-friendly observation tools with innovative technology to allow rapid measurement of large numbers of samples. JAMSTEC is already taking part in these discussions with international colleagues to increase collaboration with the sailing community.

We had celebrated the New Year’s Day of 2020 on MIRAIE in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, watching a gorgeous sunrise, feeling excited and resolute in our challenge to protect the Ocean. Who would have expected that the coronavirus pandemic would entirely alter our daily practices all over the world in a couple months after the cruise? Unfortunately, this outbreak has allowed the single-use plastic industry to push back against plastic ban policies (also see article, effect of the pandemic on climate). Furthermore, mass disposal of medical-use plastics is being seen on beaches, and this may discourage people’s efforts in fighting against plastic pollutions. However, the pandemic also gives us an opportunity to realize that we are all living on one and the same planet, and that the solution to these problems can be brought only by the world working together beyond national borders, sectors and disciplines. In a way, while physically detached from each other, we feel connected closer than ever with colleagues all over the world. It may be symbolic that the launch of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030 coincides with the unexpected global paradigm shift triggered by the pandemic (also see article on the Ocean Decade).

The team, from left, Chief Officer of MIRAIE, Yurie Seki (YAMAHA Motor Co., Ltd.), Holly Griffin (UNEP-WCMC), Sanae Chiba (JAMSTEC, project leader).

The team, from left, Chief Officer of MIRAIE, Yurie Seki (YAMAHA Motor Co., Ltd.), Holly Griffin (UNEP-WCMC), Sanae Chiba (JAMSTEC, project leader).

There is only one global Ocean on our planet. Together with global society, we Ocean scientists must commit ourselves to deliver the science for the clean, healthy Ocean we want.

This project is conducted to address the sustainable development goals (SDGs) 14.1: prevention and reduction of marine pollution, 5: gender equality and 17: partnerships for the goals.

References:

[1] N. Maximenko, P. Corradi, K. L. Law, E. Van Sebille, S. P. Garaba, R. S. Lampitt, et al., “Toward the Integrated Marine Debris Observing System.” Frontiers in Marine Science. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2019.00447, 2019.

[2] R. C. Hale, M. E. Seeley, M. J. La Guardia, L. Mai, and E. Y. Zeng, “A global perspective on microplastics,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans. doi: 10.1029/2018JC014719, 2020.

[3] J. Kershaw, “Floating plastics: a wide-reaching problem,” One Shared Ocean. 2020. [Online]. Available at: http://onesharedocean.org/open_ocean/pollution/floating_plastics [Accessed: June 11, 2020].

[4] National Marine Educators’ Association, “Ocean Literacy: The Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts of Ocean Sciences for Learners of All Ages.” 2013. [pdf]. National Marine Educators’ Association USA. Available at: https://bit.ly/2Jsj7jk. [Accessed: June 11, 2020].

Author Bio: Sanae Chiba has studied marine ecosystem responses to global environmental pressures through her career. From April 2019 onwards, she was assigned as the Leader of the newly launched Marine Plastics Research Group at JAMSTEC (Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, Yokosuka, Japan). Her current interest is toward not only natural science but also social science including science-policy interface, and Ocean Literacy, which are important components in achievement of the UN Decade of Ocean Science.