To Catch Plastic and To Kill a Fish


I’m now just over a week at sea, having left Angra Dos Reis (Anchorage of the Kings), Brazil on November 8th. Our crew is now some 1100 miles out, sampling the ocean for plastic pollution every 60 nautical miles or so. As I sit here, a storm rages outside, and uncharacteristically of the South Atlantic, the wind is coming from the South, not the North, Northwest. We have yet to find the trade winds, which makes our 72 foot sailing vessel heave and ho beyond comfort.

Thus far, we’ve found what we suspected would be in the South Atlantic. Plastic. The gyre, or what is popularly referred to as a ‘garbage patch’ is still about 600 miles from our position, and so far, we’re not finding a prolific amount in our samples yet, but that will most likely change as we get farther into the gyre. The weather will change, too, and we expect very light winds and very calm seas which should reveal the garbage out here in better detail. Big seas tend to hide the plastic, driving it down into the water column.

Chelsea, one of our scientists, is monitoring the water for pollutants and pollutant uptake in virgin plastic that she drags behind the boat. But her most groundbreaking work has proven that pollutants like PCBs, DDT, and PAHs that plastic absorbs in the marine environment can in fact transfer to a fish’s tissue after ingestion. So far, she’s proved this in her lab in San Diego, and is looking to repeat the experiment with samples taken from the field. In our case, that’s the middle of the ocean. The possible ramifications of this notion are startling. Throughout a predator fish’s life, she’ll eat thousands of fish, and if each one is polluted, that amount of pollution will biomagnify throughout the predator fish’s life. If that predator is say, tuna, and you’re eating a some sashimi with friends – well, you see where this is going.

Personalities and Killing Fish

It’s actually kind of funny, this crew; as is typical of our expeditions, we take a very diverse group of people and personalities in order to share different perspectives on this issue as we conduct outreach once we’re back home. But out here, what I love is that each person tends to approach the same moment or experience, differently. There’s Jody, our filmmaker, who barks in romantic Moby Dick Captain Ahab-isms and caught a fish yesterday. He had a fairly sizable Dorado (Mahi-Mahi) on the line, and he swore like a 19th century pirate in verse, excited by the ‘fight with the watery beast from dimensions that excite the imagination’ as he pulled it to the boat.

Meanwhile the scene is complimented by a just-awake Chelsea, who is pulling out a clipboard and donning latex gloves methodically in order to collect the liver and stomach of the fish for her research. Then you have Dale, the first mate Kiwi, who is verbally abusing me at the helm (when a fish gets on the line, you want to slow or stop the boat) the whole time this is happening. After we land it, he repeatedly and savagely stabs the fish in the head  (“die you c#nt bastard!”) trying to get the thing to die quickly. The constant vulgar barrage of words from Dale’s mouth towards me and the fish is essentially New Zealandish for “hey guy, I actually really like you.” (Special note here – if a Kiwi isn’t giving you an exceedingly large amount of crap, he doesn’t care for you – verbal abuse where he comes from is tantamount to a term of endearment.)

Then you have Rich, the Santa Cruz warrior poet who will look at the whole spiritual side of taking an animal’s life for food, and he’ll be respectfully thanking the animal for providing us with a meal. Also on the scene is the pro surfer from SoCal, Mary Osborne, videotaping the whole drama with an astonished or horrified look on her face, not used to this sort of primal ritual splayed out in front of her. As well, you have Anna, deeply saddened by the whole escapade, sensitive to the butchery in front of her.

What I love about being here, in the middle of nowhere, crammed into a tiny ship for a month is the purity of spirit that emerges in everyone sharing the experience. To be at sea for 30 days is no easy thing, and you’re counting on the people you’re with to keep you happy, healthy and alive. That interdependency is sublime. Yes, we’re all on an environmental mission, doing some crucial work, but there are a lots of hours in the day in which to play. Joke. Be. Kill fish. This precisely is why the sea calls to me and why I care for her health so. It’s why I’m here.