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How do we steer our way out of an environmental mess?
Image: courtesy capt. charlie moore

Modern Mariner

Capt. Charlie Moore navigates the seas of scientific distortion and plastic debris

With the Internet and 24-hour news networks, we have more exposure to more information than in any other time in history. Yet when it comes to environmental issues like global warming and marine plastic pollution, people still seem lost in a cluttered sea of conflicting opinions, scientific reports and urban myths.

Take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Over the last decade, the media has reported on massive islands of floating debris the size of Texas. Yet the true size and scope of the polluted areas often eluded journalists, scientists and government agencies. Many environmental activists say marine plastic pollution is a major threat to the world’s oceans, while the plastics industry tries to downplay the problem. No wonder people are confused.

Sailing out of this morass of misinformation, Capt. Charles Moore has attempted to set the record straight in his new book Plastic Ocean (co-authored by Cassandra Phillips, Avery/Penguin Group, 2011). After 10 voyages through the area, Moore explains that the Garbage Patch is really more of a “toxic plastic soup” dispersed over thousands of miles. Even more surprising is the fact that there are four “patches” in oceans around the world. Natural disasters like last year’s tsunami in Japan only add to these swirling gyres of debris.

In his memoir, Moore emerges as a citizen scientist and activist who tells about his discovery of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 1997. After competing in the Trans-Pac race from California to Hawaii, the veteran mariner was sailing back home through the “horse latitudes” when he began seeing all kinds of plastic marine debris. Over the next few years, Moore and his research team at the Algalita Marine Research Foundation started working with scientists around the Pacific, collecting and surveying the debris collected in their trawls.

Moore discovered that vast currents in the North Pacific Gyre swept pollution from Asia and the Americas into a debris accumulation zone called a “garbage patch,” a term coined by oceanographer Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer. Publishing the research from his scientific voyages in peer-reviewed journals, Moore found that in certain parts of the ocean, there was more plastic than plankton (the basic food of the ocean).

To illustrate the extent and size of the problem, Moore said that the Garbage Patch was the size of Texas. The media ate up this tantalizing tidbit of information and then spit out reports of massive islands of debris. Soon, the Pacific Gyre was reported to be twice and even three times the size of Texas. One National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminsitration (NOAA) official quipped, “Since when did Texas become an official scientific unit of measure?”

“As far as I know, Charlie Moore has never presented the facts in any sort of distorted manner,” says Randy Olson, a marine biologist and author. “But people like a good legend,” he adds, “so it was easy to make the leap from ‘bits of floating plastic’ to a ‘floating island.’ ”

A few researchers and scientists at NOAA and the Scripps Institute of Oceanography criticized some of Moore’s research methodology and the media attention he received. But none could dispute that he was one of the first and most effective researchers to alert the world about the Garbage Patch and the extent of marine plastic pollution in our oceans.

“As for the effectiveness of Moore’s communication efforts, he is the guy with the Rolling Stone profile and appearance on The Colbert Report, reaching millions of people with this issue,” Olson says. “You don’t see any Scripps scientists pulling that off. I’d be jealous, too, if I were them.” In his book Don’t Be Such a Scientist, Olson partly blames the lack of scientific literacy in American media and culture on his fellow scientists for not communicating their findings better.

At the 5th International Marine Debris Conference held in Honolulu last March, Moore sailed into another squall of controversy when he accused the organizers of giving into the demands of Coca-Cola and the American Chemistry Council (ACC). He said by sponsoring the conference, the ACC and other plastics industry representatives were able to shape its policies behind closed doors.

Just as Moore and other activists predicted, the conference’s final report barely mentioned plastics. But the ACC and other corporate lobbying groups can’t stifle this disturbing fact: Plastics make up more than 80 percent of marine debris. Nor can they deny more than 253 marine species have become victims of plastic debris through entanglement in and/or ingestion, including endangered sea turtles, monk seals and seabirds. “Upwards of 100,000 Laysan albatross chicks are dying each year at their main rookery on Midway Island, northwest of Hawaii,” Moore writes, bringing the point home.

In the last chapter of his far-reaching memoir, Moore emphasizes the inspiring efforts of Algalita and other environmental groups around the country to reduce plastic pollution in the environment and the plasticizing chemicals that have leached into our own bodies. “Single-use plastics are the major issue for many activists, since so few are recycled and so many have a burden of transmissible chemicals that end up in the ocean–and in us. The message is simple: If you are a manufacturer, redesign your products until they are nontoxic and easy to recycle.”

Next week, Moore and co-author Cassandra Phillips will conduct book signings and readings around Oahu. In his memoir and talks, Moore encourages people to refuse single-use plastic water bottles, grocery bags and Styrofoam containers that are choking our oceans.

Rising above the chatter of cable news stories and scientific disputes, Plastic Ocean presents an in-depth look at the problem of marine plastic pollution. Moore also offers an inspiring vision of how to steer our way out of this environmental mess and back toward the pristine oceans our grandparents once knew.

A compass to Capt. Charlie Moore’s book signings and free public talks:

Bookends in Kailua on Mon., 1/16, 6:00pm

Kahuku High School on Tue., 1/17, 8:15am

The UH Sustainability Summit, Manoa Campus Center Ballroom on Tue., 1/17, 12:00–2:00pm

Indigo Restaurant on Tue., 1/17, from 6:00–8:30pm, sponsored by the Kokua Hawaii Foundation and Surfrider Foundation