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Friday, April 21, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Oceans of Waste

SOMETHING RED CAUGHT Ellen Anderson's eye. Something sharp and bright, out of place amidst the muted colors and gentle rhythms of the dunes.

Anderson stepped off the little path that wound from her Ocean Park weekend house to a sandy stretch along the Washington coast. She parted the long beach grasses. She stared, shocked: A dead bird, its exposed belly filled with shiny bits of plastic. Chunks yellowed like old teeth, a perforated pink rectangle, hairy tan slivers. A red shard had first captured her attention.

"My gut hurt. It was a glorious day, sunny, a treasure in May. Everything was great. And then I saw that bird and I was sick to my stomach," Anderson recently recalled. "You jump to conclusions. Like, did the bird eat all that plastic? I was hoping it hadn't been consumed by the bird, that somebody planted it there as a joke or something."

But it was no joke. Back in Seattle, where she's a computer analyst for Group Health, Anderson e-mailed photographs of the bird's carcass to experts at the University of Washington, Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Parks, Ocean Conservancy and Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

"Yes — Ellen — it is just as you suspected," wrote the Conservancy's Charles Barr, in a reply echoed by the others. "Seabirds are eating plastics that become lodged in their stomachs, causing death. I have seen dozens of photos such as this one — most of . . . dead albatross on the Pacific Islands of Midway and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. . . . Many of the albatross will even return to their nests to feed, by regurgitation, plastics to their chicks."

To fully understand the big deal over Anderson's dead bird, you need to know it was not a seagull. It was a Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), identified by a tube atop its beak that spurts out excess salt. Like albatross and other pelagic seabirds, fulmars spend their whole lives way, way out in the ocean, coming to shore only during summer breeding, when females lay a single white egg on cliffs.

The rest of the time, the fulmars skim the waves, flying thousands of miles a year, feeding on small fish and jellyfish, crustaceans and larvae. "They're out on the open ocean where there's tremendous competition for scarce food, so they don't stop to look before grabbing whatever it is on the surface," says Alan Rammer, marine-education specialist with Fish and Wildlife. "Down the craw! Eat and go. As much and as fast as they can. Gorge and get back to the nest to feed the babies."

Fulmars have been around for millennia, and live as long as 40 years. Yet in the span of a generation, their diet has drastically changed. Now they feast on plastic.

Their taste for plastic makes them like canaries in a coal mine, or rather, fulmars floating in flotsam. The dead seabirds tell us about the ocean's health.

Dutch researchers have used the fulmars to monitor litter in the North Sea, analyzing the stomach contents of hundreds of birds over two decades. In the early 1980s, 92 percent of the fulmars had ingested plastic; on average, 12 pieces. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of bird stomachs contained plastic, an average 31 pieces.

The fulmar Anderson found along the path at Ocean Park held 59 plastic bits. This spring, Rammer displayed them in a glass bottle at the annual Beachcombers Fun Fair in Ocean Shores, along with a picture of the dead bird.

He hypothesized that the fulmar, while foraging at sea, got blown in with a storm and collapsed in the tall grass, starved and weak because it didn't have enough real nutrients in its belly.

"You look at the jagged edges of those pieces," Rammer says. They got stuck. "It couldn't process and assimilate food in its digestive tract. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out. I don't have any doubt in my mind. It died as a result of plastic poisoning. And I have no doubt there are millions of others like it."

WITH DEFT FINGERS, Curt Ebbesmeyer sorted the 59 pieces: A broken toy hockey stick, turquoise chips, a red screw-on cap crammed with granules — nurdles — raw industrial pellets the size of an "o" from which all other plastic things are made. One piece of birch bark.

"What's this bird been doing? Where's it been?" Ebbesmeyer frowned. "Out of 59 pieces: one natural, the rest plastic." He pointed to a curved red disc encrusted with white bryozoa, a slow-growing moss-animal. "That's been around a long time," he said, guessing the worn plastic had drifted in the ocean for decades before the fulmar snatched it up. "Some of what we're looking at here could be up to a half-century old."

Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer, is considered a world expert on flotsam, the miscellaneous stuff that floats the seas and circulates the globe on strong currents — sometimes for decades. What's trash to other people is evidence to Ebbesmeyer, who, like a forensic beachcomber, uses telltale clues, the Internet, the phone and mapping software of ocean currents to trace what it is, where it came from and what story it's telling.

"Everything has a meaning," he says. "Everything has a deeper significance."

Take a piece of plastic marked "VP-101" found in the stomach of a dead Laysan albatross chick along with cigarette lighters, bottle caps and hundreds of other pieces of plastic (all pictured in National Geographic, October 2005). Ebbesmeyer helped confirm that "VP-101" was likely a Bakelite tag for a U.S. Navy patrol squadron during World War II, and could, indeed, have floated in the ocean for 60 years before the albatross swallowed it.

Here's the back story: While grazing for food to feed its baby, Ebbesmeyer says, the albatross parent may have picked the war relic out of the Pacific Ocean's Great Garbage Patch.

The Garbage Patch is at least twice the size of Texas, hovers midway between Hawaii and San Francisco, and is filled with, you guessed it, trash.

Huge, rotating currents of air and water created the Garbage Patch. At the Equator, air gets hot, rises and drifts toward the cooler North Pole. Earth's rotation moves the heated air westward; in the north, the cooled air descends and moves eastward, creating a massive clockwise rotation above the Pacific. The swirling air drives an oceanic current below called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

If, starting at the Washington coast, you waded into this humongous oval current, you'd float about 14,000 miles — down the California coast, then southwest past Hawaii, toward Vietnam and the Philippines, then up to Japan and back across the ocean to where you started. It would take about six years. If you happened to reach the Pacific Northwest coast during winter, the Davidson current might carry you north to Alaska, where the Alaska Stream would push you into the Bering Sea and through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean. With any luck, you'd surf the waves past Iceland and wind up bobbing in the North Atlantic. A more likely scenario is that you'd continue riding the gyre, slipping south toward California for another go-round.

Unless, that is, you escaped the gyre and washed ashore. Or got trapped in the Garbage Patch: trash purgatory.

Old as the wind and ocean, the Garbage Patch is a natural phenomenon. For eons, long-lived sea beans, driftwood and other stuff has accumulated there. What's new is that it's now home to plastic debris that doesn't biodegrade.

That's the "deeper significance" of "VP-101," the 60-year-old relic eaten by the albatross chick. It's the "meaning" behind the 59 plastic bits in the fulmar Ellen Anderson discovered at Ocean Park.

Think of all the plastic that winds up in the ocean — from every country on the Pacific Rim, every river flowing into the ocean, any fishing vessel out at sea, any freight container fallen overboard, any factory intentionally or accidentally dumping, any vacationer careless with a pop bottle, sandwich baggie or plastic doll. "Every sphere of human activity has some plastic residue in the ocean," Ebbesmeyer says. Some of it may sink. Some of it may be ground into plastic dust; no comfort, since it's ingested by filter feeders such as clams, believed to be portals to the food chain.

We love plastic because it's cheap, light and durable. The problem is that it doesn't go away.

"People think something put in the ocean is out of sight, out of mind," Ebbesmeyer says. "But the ocean moves it all around the planet. It's like one big nest."

THE NORTHWEST coast is one of the world's top beachcombing areas because the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre turns here, dumping lots of debris.

Much of it seems to fill the basement of Ebbesmeyer's tidy Ravenna bungalow: A barnacle-encrusted bowling ball (yes, David Letterman, bowling balls up to 12 pounds will float); Japanese survey stakes; messages in bottles, hockey gloves from a container that spilled 34,000 of them; Nike tennis shoes and cross trainers from container spills between 1990 and 2003 (currents carried the lefts to certain beaches, the rights to other shores); 29,000 First Years bathtub toys (yellow ducks, blue turtles, green frogs, red beavers) that have traveled the world's seas on paths predicted, with eerie accuracy, by Ebbesmeyer and oceanographer Jim Ingraham using sophisticated computer simulations.

"Everything on the beach has a cool story," Ebbesmeyer says. "You just have to wring its little neck to figure it out."

Ebbesmeyer is a tall, gentle guy who frequently lectures to school groups and beachcombers. His face lights up while talking about the sea's trashy treasures, but sooner or later come the inevitable questions about what he calls "the dark side."

How many container spills annually? Several thousand. Nike is one of the few companies to help Ebbesmeyer trace the origin of spills. Other companies claim no knowledge of lost merchandise. Since containers create but a fraction of the litter in the sea, Ebbesmeyer says, cleanup isn't even on regulatory radar. Yet consider that one container can hold hundreds of thousands of plastic bags, he says, each with the potential to choke a sea turtle. And don't forget the million weather balloons dropping thousands of electronic boxes into the waves . . . the abandoned fishing gear . . . the plastic residue from fireworks . . .

Where does this stuff, including drums filled with toxic chemicals, come from? Hard to tell.

How long does plastic last in the ocean? Nobody knows.

Plastic was invented in the 1860s and first used as an alternative material for billiard balls carved from ivory elephant tusks. Soon, plastic spun through early celluloid movie reels. Then came Bakelite, cellophane, nylons, vinyl couches, Teflon, Silly Putty, Velcro . . .

Remember the 1967 film "The Graduate''? In it, Mr. Robinson offered only one word of advice to Dustin Hoffman: Plastics. Then came throwaway TV dinner trays, plastic pop bottles, shrink-wrapped packaging. These days, the world annually produces 250 billion pounds of plastic pellets to be made into cars, computers, medical equipment, gallon jugs for milk.

What's being done? Along our country's coasts for the past decade, "citizen pollution patrols" in the National Marine Debris Monitoring Program (sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ocean Conservancy) have swept and sorted, determining 42 percent of beach litter comes from land, 20 percent from water and 38 percent, either water or land. In Congress, Senators Ted Stevens, Daniel Inouye and Maria Cantwell, among others, have introduced a bill calling for a federal program to assess, reduce and prevent marine debris. It passed the House; the Senate is expected to vote on it this spring.

The United Nations Environmental Program, Australia and the United Kingdom are working on fishing-waste management. Grassroots groups, including Green Peace, are starting to trawl for plastics. But so far, there's no coordinated international effort similar in scale, say, to the Kyoto Protocol.

"It's not as sexy as global warming, but it's definitely pervasive," says debris expert Seba Sheavly. "Marine debris affects every major body of water on the planet."

Everyone agrees you cannot clean up the ocean. The focus, Sheavly says, should be on prevention and waste management. Optimists say the throwaway lifestyle will be over by 2050, that people will demand each product have a path back into production.

Ebbesmeyer is not an optimist. He's seen too many studies that never went anywhere.

"If you could fast forward 10,000 years and do an archeological dig, a core sample down through the beach, you'd find a little line of plastic," he says. "What happened to those people? Well, they ate their own plastic and disrupted their genetic structure and weren't able to reproduce. They didn't last very long because they killed themselves. . .

"Mother Nature is writing to us, and she writes to us on the beach," he says. "The ocean is warning us, and if we don't listen, it's very easy for her to get rid of us."

CAPTAIN CHARLES Moore has been there. Sailed right through the Garbage Patch, about 1,000 nautical miles, on his research catamaran Alguita.

Seeing the Garbage Patch from a plane doesn't do the flotsam justice; the trash is too dispersed, some of it suspended below the surface or hidden by waves. Sailing, it's in your face.

"I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic," Moore wrote in Natural History in 2003.

In August 1998, Moore and his crew extensively sampled the surface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre with a fine-mesh net resembling a manta ray. "What we saw amazed us," Moore said in an analysis for the 2001 Marine Pollution Bulletin. "We were looking at a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of colored plastic fragments — a plastic-plankton soup." The team collected six times more plastic particles (by weight) than zooplankton.

Moore calls the plastic particles "poison pills" because they absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, acting like sponges for DDT, PCBs and other oily pollutants. "It's a serious situation," he says, "when you've got a material that comes in all shapes and sizes, can mimic every type of food in the sea, and is capable of absorbing persistent pollutants that are endocrine disruptors. . . . One hundred thousand marine mammals a year are killed by entanglement (with plastic six-pack rings, fishing lines and nets); I'm not minimizing that. But the actual ability to wipe out the entire vertebrate kingdom in the ocean is with the plastic particles."

THE DASH for trash at the beachcombers fair this year yielded 1,500 pounds of litter collected in driving rain by 19 people in two hours.

Ebbesmeyer sorted through it with his bare hands: Thousands of plastic parts from spent fireworks, screw-cap rings, beer bottles, single-cigarette cases, plastic oyster spacers, styrofoam buoys, fishing gear, fluorescent tube lights, toy trucks, plastic kite winder, hagfish traps, shotgun shell casings, the plastic ball from a Ban deodorant stick, soap-bubble wands, tires, combs, motor oil and antifreeze bottles, tampon applicators, tobacco tins, a walkie talkie, a cellphone, an inhaler, snow scrapers, several flip flops, none matching.

An old glass bottle was awarded a prize. A Trash Family sculpture created by Erma Stevenson also took several awards, including People's Choice.

But the prize beachcombers craved most was a traditional Japanese fishing float. These glass bubbles ride the gyre from Asia, sometimes washing ashore and hiding in nooks at high-tide line. The rarest are worth thousands of dollars, but it's not just about money. Fragile and elusive, the baubles hold a certain romance.

"If only my daughter could find one, I'd be so happy," says Dolly Schenk, her head protected from the rain by a plastic IGA grocery sack. Her grown daughter, June Condon of Graham, has been searching for glass balls most of her life, more intensely since her mother moved to Ocean Shores 15 years ago. So far, no luck. Instead, while walking the beach together, the mother and daughter find trash. They always bring along plastic bags to collect it.

Finding glass balls takes strategy, explains Rammer, the marine-education specialist, during an early-morning beach walk.

You must understand the sea's choreography. Wait for high winds from the west. First will come the little hydra jellyfish that look like tiny blue boats with white sails. Next come Dixie cups, light bulbs, plastic bottles with high surface area and low drag. Big glass floats riding high in the water wash in 24 to 36 hours later, then the smaller glass bubbles, and finally, the crème de la crème — glass rolling pins. When waterlogged driftwood washes up, the show is over.

Look here, at the high-tide line, Rammer urges. We peer under logs and into European beach grass, not really expecting to find anything.

But we do.

Another dead fulmar.

It's nestled in the sand, flesh still intact and covered by soft, grey tufts of feathers. Part of me wants to dissect it, to check if its belly is crammed with plastic. Instead, we decide to leave the poor bird in peace.

Enough evidence is already all around.

A few steps away from the bird: a crumbling styrofoam Cup-of-Noodles.

Way out in the ocean: 29,000 plastic bathtub toys. Six times more plastic than plankton. A Garbage Patch continually swallowing trash it can't digest.

Around noon, the rain finally stops.

Out to sea, the horizon still looks grim.

Paula Bock is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Email: pbock@seattletimes.com. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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