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North Pacific: Changes in the pelagic ecosystem

As part of the Free Range Ocean transpacific voyage from New Zealand to Canada in 2023 we undertook a project to support a multi-institutional project, funded by NASA and including the University of Hawaii, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Applied Physics Laboratory of the University of Washington, Smithsonian Institution and Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 


Aim: The project is to study changes in the pelagic ecosystem induced by the growing amounts of man-made debris floating in the ocean. This debris provides a new, long-living substrate that creates a sustained “floating” ecosystem in the otherwise low-nutrients environment. The idea of the project resulted from the discovery of hundreds of Asian coastal species that crossed the North Pacific with the debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan.


The project includes:

  • tracking real debris, 

  • deployment of a set of Lagrangian instruments, and 

  • collection of biological samples. 


Observations will allow us to improve drift models of various types of debris, from fishing nets to microplastics. Satellite trackers tagging large floating items will enable removal of these debris from the ocean and detailed sampling of biota colonizing these items.


Free Range Ocean participation:

The passage plan for Freeranger would take the crew through the North Pacific and close to or through the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ – the densest accumulation zone of marine debris in the world. With our support, they had an opportunity to support the research by carrying and if possible deploying up to two trackers if the conditions and opportunity are appropriate. 


In Honolulu ahead of departure the crew took on board two trackers and made plans to document phenomena as slicks and windrows (aggregations of seafoam, seaweeds, plankton and natural debris that appear on the ocean surface), bacterial blooms, assemblages of neuston (small aquatic organisms inhabiting the surface layer or moving on the surface film of water) and identifiable debris. 


The crew observed much marine debris during the voyage (which can be seen as micro plastics and micro fibres in the water sample data) plus larger floating items, but it was not possible to deploy the tracker due to the sea state and lack of opportunities for significant enough sized debris within the range of 30 – 38 degrees N.


It was a reminder of how difficult it is to get this kind of data at sea and why citizen science projects like these are so important.



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