Cover Story


Thirty-five percent of plankton-eating lantern fish–a species at the bottom of the marine food chain–had plastic in their bellies. It gets there because the fish mistake it for plankton. Like dioxins and mercury, phthalates and other chemicals can make their way up the food chain and into our bodies when we eat fish.


Cover image for May 18, 2011

In the era of endless news loops and aggregation, it’s hard to get a rise when mentioning the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic-coated beaches or endangered Hawaiian monk seals ensnared in rafts of trash. Everybody feels they’ve been there, seen that. Honolulu flooded by sea level rise? Yeah, that’ll be a bummer, but hey, not till next century! Japan tsunami–terrible tragedy–lucky Hawaii got off so easily! So, what else is new? Actually, we just got a wake-up call in the form of newly released research.

Hazardous Waste: The “P” in Your Fish Soup

Almost all so-called ‘marine debris’ is plastic,” Captain Charles Moore, a wiry man with blue eyes, swarthy skin and wavy, longish, piratical hair, told the Weekly at a March 29th Surfrider benefit on the Waikiki Aquarium lawn. He had just delivered the evening’s keynote speech calling for a ban on single-use plastics. The sailor and explorer, who discovered the North Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997 and subsequently founded the Algalita Marine Research Foundation–which strives to focus on the coastal ocean and the restoration of disappearing giant kelp forests and the improvement of water quality of the Pacific–arrived in Honolulu the previous week, along with 440 other participants from 38 countries, for the 5th International Marine Debris Conference which was organized by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

His use of the adjective “so-called” stemmed, Moore said, from his frustration with the substitution of “marine debris” for the word “plastic” throughout the conference, which, as earlier reported in the Weekly, included among its sponsors Coca-Cola and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). Both of which have been pouring money into efforts to block bans on disposable plastic grocery bags nationwide.

In the conference’s concluding statement, the Honolulu Commitment, the “P” word appears exactly twice. This, despite the UN’s report that there are approximately 46,000 pieces of plastic per square kilometer of ocean. “It’s enormous, but it moves around, so it’s hard to find an area of high concentration,” Moore said of the plastic in what is also known as the North Pacific Gyre, which he describes as “more of a soup than a garbage patch.” His research voyages to the gyres off Hawaii and Japan, and to the thousands of watery miles between, show that the ocean is fast turning into a plastic plasma. Discarded plastic containers, toys and other objects are broken up into microscopic fragments, about the size of plankton.

For years, Gwen Lattin, a scientist with Moore’s Algalita Foundation, which conducts research voyages, has been collecting samples in a plankton net and, under a microscope, painstakingly separating plastic from living organisms. “We go down to a third of a millimeter,” said Lattin, adding, that, in the zones, or gyres, she’s also seen some whole objects–“crates, bottles, bottle caps, some toys–no rubber ducks, but lots of plastic figurines for preschoolers.”

Because our Windward shores lie directly in the path of currents spinning out from the North Pacific Gyre, “Some beaches in the Hawaiian archipelago are mostly plastic,” Moore said, citing the Big Island’s Kamilo Beach. At the UNEP/NOAA conference, Moore’s Algalita Foundation presented new studies on plastic ocean pollution. According to which, plastic is invading our lives not only by washing up on our beaches, but in another, more insidious way: through the fish we eat.

Thirty-five percent of plankton-eating lantern fish–a species at the bottom of the marine food chain–had plastic in their bellies, a new Algalita study has found. It gets there because the fish mistake it for plankton. Like dioxins and mercury, toxic, hormone-disrupting, carcinogenic chemicals in plastic–such as Bisphenol-A, styrene, and phthalates–can make their way up the food chain and into our bodies when we eat fish. “There was another study at the conference about phthalates in fish,” said Moore.

Plastic chemicals have been found in most Americans’ blood and urine in representative population studies by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

“Plastic is not inert. It mimics food. That’s why hazardous waste would be a good designation for it,” Moore said, adding, “David Osborne, a UN diplomat, said we need to put warning labels on plastic.”

Wrack And Ruin On a Rising Tide

The Captain paused, looking out to the waves on the reef, and his frown relaxed into a gap-toothed smile. “I got to surf Public’s today,” he said, reminiscing about how he learned the sport as a boy in Waikiki under the tutelage of Rabbit Kekai. He also spent much of his youth on the Big Island. “My dad and mom started Maikai Ranch at Kalaeloa, now the Kona Coffee Company.” While he now lives in Long Beach, California, Moore returns to Hawaii several times a year. On future visits, he said he anticipated seeing a lot more plastic and other wreckage heaped high on Kamilo and other Windward beaches as tons of debris from a tsunami-shattered Japan cycle through the North Pacific Gyre and find their way here.

At the conference, University of Hawaii scientists Dr. Nikolai Maximenko and Jan Hafner presented a model projection, based on Maximenko’s studies of drifting buoys, that predicts the path of the tsunami debris plume throughout the Pacific. In one year, the debris is projected to hit Midway Island and the Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument of the Northwest Hawaiian Isles. In two years, “We’ll see some debris on our main islands–the center of the mass will pass north of us and we’ll only get its edge, but I think it will be noticeable,” Maximenko says. “The main impact will come five years from now,” he adds.

How much will that be? “Right now I cannot give numbers, but according to our estimates, after the tsunami, off the coast of Japan, there were between one and ten million tons of floating debris,” Maximenko replies.

Even though “Japan is a very clean country with well-developed recycling,” Maximenko says, in the wake of such a disaster, much of what floats to our shores will be yet more plastic.

Sea-level Rise In HawaiI: 2050 Wake-up Call

In addition to the composition of ocean-borne waste, it’s worth considering how far all this debris might reach into Hawaii’s coastline, our natural estuaries, streams and developed harbors. Sea level rise due to global warming is certain to play a part.

The recently released results of a nearly 20-year-long NASA study show that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting into the ocean far more quickly than formerly predicted, overtaking mountain glacier melts as contributors to sea level rise. As a result, projections have been revised upward and forward in time. “If present trends continue, sea level is likely to be significantly higher than levels projected by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007,” lead study author Eric Rignot told Science Daily in March.

The new prediction: We can expect sea levels to rise 12.6 inches by 2050.

It’s a “well-defined, data-based number,” says Dr. Chip Fletcher, associate dean of the school of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at UH-Manoa, who in 2008 mapped the original “blue line” of the projected one meter sea level rise on Oahu by 2100 due to climate change. “Prior to this we didn’t really have a target sea level, only estimates by 2050. What’s different [about the NASA ice sheet study] is, it gives us a refined target that’s much closer and allows us to make plans for how to respond,” Fletcher explains. He has lost no time in developing maps that “indicate, using color coding, the vulnerability of building roads and other infrastructure to different levels of sea level,” he says.

One map shows Honolulu buildings that are especially vulnerable to flooding at currently existing high tide levels, as well as those that will most likely experience high-tide flooding with sea level rises of one, two or three feet. By 2050, a one-foot rise is “going to do an enormous amount of damage to beaches, but infrastructure will also suffer,” Fletcher says. For example, “An important element of the analysis will be to identify where flooding and existing bottlenecks of traffic occur in the same place in low-elevation spots along Ala Moana and Nimitz boulevards,” he notes, adding that the planning for the light rail project has it going through some of these areas.

While we might imagine the ocean flooding across the roads, that’s not all that happens. “The water table rises and falls with the tides,” Fletcher explains. For instance, the Royal Hawaiian Hotel operates 24-hour pumps in its basement to remove groundwater from the water table. For its proposed high-rise expansion at the Moana Hotel, Kyo-ya’s planners are “building elements into their design to prevent damage to the building as sea level rises,” Fletcher says. Add to this a rainfall like we’ve been having this month, and the impact of sea level rise is compounded. For example, dips in Ala Moana Beach Park, which may be 2-3 feet above the current highest tide, may turn into wetlands.

These graphic projections may seem like an alarming wake-up call, but, above all, they’re a useful tool. The point is not to panic, Fletcher says. “It’s not a catastrophe–yet.” What’s needed is funding, planning and action for adaptation, starting now.

Lost at sea

Research suggests that between 2,000 and 10,000 containers are lost from cargo ships at sea each year. These statistics prompted the International Chamber of Shipping and the World Shipping Council to begin work on a code of practice for above-deck cargo in heavy swell.

So far, it hasn’t worked.

Follow His Drift?

Just as Captain Ahab obsessed about the one White Whale, in his book Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, author Donovan Hohn chases one lost container of plastic floatees, which fell overboard in 1992 on six voyages from Hawaii to the Arctic–where a few have washed up. Expanding Ernie’s rubber-duckie song into a Ring Cycle of trash in oceanic currents, Hohn chronicles people and places from a Chinese toy factory to an Alaska province where real animals still outnumber people.

Moby-Duck is also part confessional. Hohn reveals himself quacking like a duck, in his yellow rubber slicker in an Alaskan bar and bolting in panic out of deep Hawaiian waters back to Charles Moore’s research catamaran, where he assumes mock-heroic poses for a deckmate’s camera. As a writer, too, Hohn tries too hard to be entertaining at others’ expense as well as his own, calling a Hawaiian fishhook necklace around a barechested shipmate’s neck as “a symbol of either dudeliness or douchiness.” When Hohn takes his tongue out of his cheek, things get more interesting.

The book’s inception, inspired by a news clipping from a sad, awkward student, coincides with the gestation of the author’s first child: While his wife, in New York, approaches her due date, Hohn goes to Alaska, to beachcomb for baby bath toys. He reports the scientific evidence that neurotoxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals can leach from plastics when exposed to heat (bath water) and wear (children chewing on them). Although Hawaii Cerebral Palsy retrieves the 20,000 plastic ducks dumped annually in the Ala Wai, its fundraising “race” perpetuates a benign image for what is really a toxic toy.

Hohn further connects Floatees to ancient artifacts–a blue Egyptian mouse, a Persian porcupine on wheels–noting, “many of the figurines that look to us like toys turn out to have been totemic gods.” He then meditates on the extinction of natural species and their replacement by plastic fetishes in an infantilized America.

We watch Hohn himself grow up from armchair traveller to real-life explorer and loving father who, tossing pinecones into the Hudson with his three-year-old, describes “where the currents will take them,” if they were plastic, that is. “Still, it was fun to imagine,” Hohn adds. A report from the “synthetic wilderness” of our consumer culture that shows how Nature, despite us, maintains her majesty and mystery, Moby-Duck is an appealing, cautionary tale for readers to get lost in.