Ahoy, Captain! Plastics off the Starboard Bow!

Larry De RidderEducation

What resides in the oceans and grows an estimated 8.8 million tons per year? The answer is discarded plastic. Some of this debris washes back onto the world’s beaches and the rest heads offshore. Much of the debris ends up in one of the so-called “garbage patches”, created by the action of the cyclic global winds and currents. The best-documented garbage patches lie within the Northern Pacific gyre. Generally speaking this gyre runs north from Japan (Kuroshio Current), then across the Northern Pacific from west to east at about 50 degrees north latitude (North Pacific Current), then south along our coast (California Current), and finally east-to-west north of the equator (North Equatorial Current). The three primary garbage patch areas within this huge clockwise-moving water gyre are (1) the Eastern Pacific Patch, between California and Hawaii, (2) the Western Garbage Patch, east of Japan, and (3) the Subtropical Convergence Zone, a bit further north of the other two, and about mid-way between North America and Asia. It isn’t possible to exactly define the areas referred to by these names, because winds and ocean currents continually shift things around. However, one estimate of size for the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence is 7.7 million square miles.


The sources of plastic debris are many: discarded bottles, resin pellets, plastic goods of every description, cosmetics with microbeads, industrial abrasives, fishing gear, and even synthetic fabrics.


One of the major benefits of using plastic for so many things is that it doesn’t break down easily on its own, and virtually nothing can digest it. This guarantees a long useful life. Those exact features, of course, account for the biggest part of the problem, too. Chemical breakdown estimates for various plastics and manufacturing techniques range from 450 to 1,000 years in a landfill, and break-down time in the marine environment is also likely to be measured in centuries. While plastics don’t easily biodegrade, they do photodegrade, which means that the action of the sun and ocean, and the physical stresses placed on floating plastic, eventually prompt it to break into smaller pieces. Eventually the debris size reaches about that of a pencil eraser and is then often referred to as microplastic.  Some time after that the microplastic particles break down into nanoplastic particles, so small they can no longer be seen with the naked eye. At these sizes particles are consumed by all manner of marine life, virtually none of which can digest the material. Living where we do in a major upwelling zone, we’re well aware of the importance of plankton as the base of the marine food chain. Marine plankton is the reason our near-shore water has the color and marine life we observe.  A 1999 study of eleven locations in the North Pacific Gyre estimated there was six times as much plastic as plankton present. A similar survey in 2014 estimated that in only fifteen years the ratio had grown to 63 times as much plastic as plankton. Our plastic waste is overwhelming the ecological system in these areas.


There are three approaches that must be undertaken if we are to prevent endless growth of plastic debris in the ocean. First, the volume washing out to sea must be reduced substantially. That means we must reduce our reliance on single-use plastic products. Think straws and glasses at a fast-food franchise, plastic labels on merchandise, plastic wrap on food products and bait trays…the list is seemingly endless. The second is to prevent those plastics which we do use from getting into waterways. Recycling must become second nature for everyone. NOAA does fund some efforts towards that goal. As one participant noted, “You can’t drain the bathtub unless you turn off the tap.” And finally – clean-up. Interestingly, clean-up is the most controversial of the three areas. The biggest obstacle here is maritime law, which states that no one owns the ocean. The flip side of that is no one actually owns the problem, either, and thus governments have spent very little on the issue. One interesting private clean-up effort was initiated by Boyar Slat of the Netherlands, when he was only 17 years old. A crowdsourcing effort by nearly 40,000 individuals raised $22 million in 100 days. Their company, Ocean Cleanup is testing working models of floating booms with suspended screens that can make a substantial difference, if the booms are regularly cleaned and debris taken ashore for proper disposal. They estimate that 62 miles of properly designed and placed floating barriers could capture half of the floating debris in ten years. That of course would result in a mountain of plastic to be brought ashore by the tending vessels.


So, next time you’re out fishing or at the beach and spot a bit of plastic debris, please make an effort to capture and dispose of it properly.


Change in Permissible VHF Radio Use


Though it received little notice, in January this year the FCC relaxed some VHF radio use restrictions. Regulations now permit limited use of your radio while you are ashore, “so long as it is limited to enhancing the usefulness of marine VHF radios without negatively affecting maritime communications.” Radio use is limited to those areas immediately adjacent to the water (e.g. docks and beaches) and must relate to the operational and business needs of the vessel the radio is associated with. Broadcasts must be limited to “the minimum practical transmission time.”



Local History Tidbit


So, everyone knows that the Mad River once entered the northern portion of Humboldt Bay, right? We still have traces of Mad River Slough as a left-over to prove it! Apparently that’s just another local myth. According to local historian Barry Evans, who wrote about this in April 2009, the river has never had a documented natural outlet into Humboldt Bay. The Slough is the remnant of an artificial channel that existed from 1855 to 1888. This allowed early loggers to float old-growth redwoods cut in the Mad River drainage into Humboldt Bay. This simplified transport to local sawmills. The old township map apparently documents the slough as being 710 yards long. During summer months, the slough was likely of little help, but apparently during the winter there was enough flow to not only catch and divert floating logs with a boom, but to catch so many that the boom was regularly destroyed. The other diverted product was, of course, the silt which the Mad carries during high water events. The Harbor Commission ordered the closing of the Slough in 1888, but it appears that extra dredging of the Arcata Channel was required through about 1930 to deal with excess silt accumulation. The 2009 article doesn’t address the impact of the canal on salmon populations during its time in operation.




Juvenile Salmonid in Local Streams


Have you ever wondered how many salmon are spawned in the various small streams and raised in the small estuaries that empty into Humboldt Bay?  Well, some lucky biologists get paid to answer questions like that one.  CDFW publishes a quarterly periodical of studies pertaining to all kinds of wildlife and fisheries.  One, published in 2015 deals with juvenile salmon in our own backyards.  It’s much too long to duplicate here, but if you would like to read a study by local scientists about salmon growing up in Freshwater Creek Slough, Elk River Slough and Salmon Creek Estuary, go to https://nrm.dfg.ca.gov/FileHandler.ashx?DocumentID=113245.



California WaterFix Update


There have been a few new developments on Governor Brown’s Water Fix project in recent months.  This is the governor’s push to spend nearly $16 billion to dig two tunnels 40 feet high and 35 miles long, beneath the Sacramento River.  The project would facilitate taking water from Northern California and sending it to Southern California, bypassing the Delta as it’s moved.  This project is important to saltwater fishermen throughout the state, as it will certainly affect the many salmon runs that pass through the Delta.  Whether you believe that affect will be beneficial or harmful depends on who you listen to and trust.  In early June, it was disclosed the various water agencies and districts which stand to gain the most by such an action are pushing for more of a leadership and management role in the   process.  Their proposal calls for the formation of a Joint-Powers Authority (JPA) to speed up the project.  Critics of the project, of which there are many, argue that this action could result in a JPA motivated to cut corners in areas affecting public safety and environmental effects.  In late June word came out that both National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) concluded the proposed project would not endanger more than a dozen federally protected species in the Delta.  The news release quoted Paul Souza of the USFWS as saying the project “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any of these species, and is not likely to destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat.”  Critics of the project claim the science used was “cherry picked”.  Previous statements by federal agencies indicated the tunnels would likely increase the chances the once-abundant California Delta Smelt would become extinct, and harm runs of winter-run Chinook salmon.  One group of water agencies in the Central Valley has asked the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to hold off on their rulings until these water agencies receive satisfactory assurance the proposed tunnel project costs will not be charged to them, or reduce their own water access.


Financing sources have still not been clearly identified, and some proposed benefactors of the project, such as the very large Metropolitan Water District in SoCal have yet to commit to paying for a share of the project.


Following weeks of news updates, at the end of June the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others filed suit to stop the project.  Other plaintiffs involved include Golden Gate Salmon Association (commercial salmon fishers), Defenders of Wildlife, and the Bay Institute.  These groups assert that further modifying the delta is likely to harm various species.


Interestingly, while all the tunnel planning and lawsuits progress, developing science may be making the whole project moot.  A device recently invented at UC Berkeley has caught up with the Star Wars franchise.  Do you remember Anakin Skywalker’s (Darth Vader) brother Owen Lars?  This character was a “moisture farmer” on the desert world Tatooine, in a galaxy far, far away… Well, a new device built at UC Berkeley can generate drinkable water from desert air using nothing but sunlight warming as a power source.  A device about the size of a coffee mug can generate about a soda can’s worth of water in about an hour, according to a report published in Science News.  There is no obvious reason the device can’t be scaled up to commercial sizes.  Previous attempts to extract water from air were inefficient when the relative humidity was less than 50%.  Those devices used spongy materials such as silica gels.  However, the process was slow and required a lot of energy to then remove the collected water from the gel.  This new device can work with relative humidity as low as 20%.  The key ingredient is a material using electrically charged metal atoms linked by organic molecules.  The materials have been named Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs), and the MOF structure consists of a series of microscopic pores.  The prototype included a layer of a specific MOF mixed with copper foam.  When in the shade it collects water directly from the air.  Move the device into the sunlight and it warms, releasing the collected water into an underlying layer, where it is condensed back into liquid form.  The full cycle takes about two hours.  Lab tests showed that about 2.8 liters (6 pints) of water per day can be collected by every kilo (2.2 pounds) of MOF.  The materials aren’t exotic and could be mass produced.  Fully developed, this could be a way for every farmer to simply build a facility to harvest water on-site and largely disconnect from large-scale water distribution systems.  If you are interested in the hard science, the published paper can be found at http://yaghi.berkeley.edu/pdfPublications/14-watermofs.pdf or www.nature.com/articles/srep19097.