Despite growing awareness of the problem of plastic pollution in the world's oceans, little solid scientific information existed to illustrate the nature and scope of the issue. This week, a team of researchers from Sea Education Association (SEA), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), and the University of Hawaii (UH) published a study of plastic marine debris based on data collected over 22 years by SEA undergraduate students in the latest issue of the journal Science.

A previously undefined expanse of the western North Atlantic has been found to contain high concentrations of plastic debris, comparable to those observed in the region of the Pacific commonly referred to as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch".

More than 64,000 individual plastic pieces were collected at 6100 locations that were sampled yearly over the course of the study. A surface plankton net was used to collect plastic debris as well as biological organisms at each station. The highest concentrations of plastic were observed in a region centered at 32°N (roughly the latitude of Atlanta, GA) and extending from 22-38°N latitude. Numerical model simulations by Nikolai Maximenko (UH) explain why surface currents cause the plastic to accumulate in this region.

This latest achievement builds on the depth of SEA's background and research in this area. The work of many SEA scientists and hundreds of SEA alumni have made essential contributions over decades, including the paper by R. Jude Wilbur, published in Oceanus in 1987 based on SEA research and the recently published paper by alumna Skye Morét-Ferguson, SEA Class C-190, in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Significant other related achievements include papers and posters presented at the Ocean Sciences Conference in February, 2010 and the recently completed Plastics @ SEA: North Atlantic Expedition.

As we approach our 40th Anniversary year, this publication recognizes the work of SEA students, faculty and staff over several decades studying plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean. And what is different is that it is not recognition for the educational program we are all so proud of; it is recognition of the valuable scientific contribution made by SEA to society's understanding of the ocean.