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Ocean Plastics and Marine Pollution

Ocean Plastics and Marine Pollution

Marine pollution has been a focus of SEA Semester student research since the early 1980s. Tar balls and plastic particles have been collected and counted in routine, twice-daily surface plankton net tows, resulting in long-term records of contamination in the North Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and North and South Pacific Oceans. During this time the occurrence of floating tar balls has substantially declined, in contrast to floating plastic debris, which continues to persist. Ocean plastics are the focus of multiple avenues of research by SEA faculty and SEA Semester students to better understand their sources, distribution, transport, and fate in the ocean.

SEA has conducted two research expeditions, crewed by volunteer SEA alumni, dedicated to the study of plastic marine debris.  For each expedition a website documented the daily activities onboard the ship, sharing the scientific findings and teaching readers about the subject of marine debris:

Plastics at SEA: North Atlantic Expedition 2010

Plastics at SEA: North Pacific Expedition 2012

Research Themes

Sea Education Association Research

Microplastic abundance and distribution

Most plastic debris collected in our surface-towing plankton nets can be classified as microplastics (smaller than 5 mm in size), whether easily-identifiable industrial resin pellets, the “raw material” of plastic products, or particles derived from the breakdown of larger items.  Microplastic measurements from more than 10,000 plankton net tows have been used to map the distribution of this floating contaminant, which is transported by large-scale ocean currents into accumulation zones in the subtropical gyres of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and other basins.  SEA’s decades-long time series also allow for investigation into potential increases in floating plastic abundance in response to increased plastic input into the ocean over time.

Christopher M. Reddy, WHOI
Giora Proskurowski, MarqMetrix
Nikolai Maximenko, University of Hawaii

Selected Microplastic abundance and distribution papers and publications

Sea Education Association Research

Microplastic ingestion

Ingestion of marine debris has been documented in more than 300 species of marine animals ranging from invertebrates to fish, and from seabirds to marine mammals. The impacts of microplastic ingestion are an area of active research – there is concern not only about the effects on individual animals, but also the possibility that microplastics, or the chemical contaminants associated with them, might be passed up the food web. At SEA, professor Amy Siuda is leading a study funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program to investigate selective grazing of microplastics with and without chemical contaminants by a common species of zooplankton (copepod A. tonsa) near the base of the food web.

Anthony L. Andrady, North Carolina State University/Helix Science

Selected Microplastic ingestion papers and publications

Sea Education Association Research

Plastic degradation in seawater

Plastics are synthetic polymers designed for strength and durability.  As such, they are very resistant to degradation in the environment.  Plastics are typically weakened by exposure to ultraviolet radiation, causing them to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces.  How small these pieces become, and how long they remain plastics before being fully degraded by microbial action, are open questions.  Using the decades-long archives of floating debris collected by SEA Semester students in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, SEA professor Kara Lavender Law is leading a NSF-funded study investigating the physical and chemical signatures of degradation on these ocean samples, with complementary laboratory and field exposure experiments designed to determine the time scales of these weathering signatures.

Giora Proskurowski, MarqMetrix
Anthony L. Andrady, North Carolina State University/Helix Science

Sea Education Association Research

Tar pollution

Floating tar balls result from weathering of both naturally occurring and maritime industry-sourced oil slicks. Coincident with implementation of international regulations to ban oil discharge from ships, surface plankton net tow sampling conducted by SEA in the Sargasso Sea documents a decline in frequency of tar balls from 1977 to 2012. Today, it is quite rare to encounter tar in our nets.

Andrew J. Peters, Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences

Selected Tar pollution papers and publications

Sea Education Association Research

The “Plastisphere”: Microbial communities on plastic debris

Plastic debris is rapidly colonized by diverse microbial communities referred to as the “Plastisphere”, which are distinct from microbial communities in surrounding seawater.  This relatively new, anthropogenic substrate develops a biofilm of microbes including phototrophs, heterotrophs, potential pathogens (e.g., Vibrio sp.), predators and symbionts that may influence marine food webs and biogeochemical cycling.  In an NSF-funded study, SEA professor Erik Zettler and colleagues are investigating the community structure and function of these rich communities on microplastics with the help of students on SEA vessels.

Linda Amaral-Zettler, Marine Biological Laboratory
Tracy Mincer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Selected The "Plastisphere": Microbial Communities on Plastic Debris papers and publications

Vertical mixing of floating microplastics

Microplastics at the sea surface float because they are less dense than seawater, but energy from the wind creates turbulence that can mix these buoyant pieces tens of meters deep, out of reach of surface plankton nets used to collect them. SEA professor Kara Lavender Law and colleagues, with support from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, are studying the physical properties of the debris together with the physics of ocean turbulence to create models that predict how much plastic is mixed below the sea surface under different wind and weather conditions.

Giora Proskurowski, MarqMetrix
Tobias Kukulka, University of Delaware

Video courtesy of Tobias Kukulka

Selected Vertical mixing of floating microplastics papers and publications

Papers and Publications

Peer-reviewed publications

Erwin, E. G., P. J. Culligan, M. Fischer-Kowalski, K. L. Law*, R. Murtugudde and S. Pfirman, 2018. Bridging barriers to advance global sustainability. Nat. Sustain. 1, 324-326.

doi: 10.1038/s41893-018-0085-1

Pfaller, J. B. and M. A. Gil^, 2016. Sea turtle symbiosis facilitates social monogamy in oceanic crabs via refuge size. Biol. Lett. 12, 20160607.

doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2016.0607

Kukulka, T., K. L. Law* and G. Proskurowski*, 2016. Evidence for the influence of surface heat fluxes on turbulent mixing of microplastic marine debris. J. Phys. Oceanogr., 46, 809-815.

doi: 10.1175/JPO-D-15-0242.1

Gil^, M. A. and J. B. Pfaller, 2016. Oceanic barnacles act as foundation species on plastic debris: implications for marine dispersal. Sci. Rep. 6, 19987.

doi: 10.1038/srep19987

van Sebille, E., C. Wilcox, L. Lebreton, N. Maximenko, B. D. Hardesty, J. A. van Franeker, M. Eriksen, D. Siegel, F. Galgani and K. L. Law*, 2015.  A global inventory of small floating plastic debris.  Environ. Res. Lett. 10, 124006.

doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/124006

Amaral-Zettler, L. A., E. R. Zettler*, B. Slikas, G. D. Boyd, D. W. Melvin, C. E. Morrall, G. Proskurowski* and T. J. Mincer, 2015. The biogeography of the Plastisphere: implications for policy. Front. Ecol. Environ. 13, 541–546.

doi: 10.1890/150017

Brunner, K., T. Kukulka, G. Proskurowski* and K. L. Law*, 2015. Passive buoyant tracers in the ocean surface boundary layer: 2. Observations and simulations of microplastic marine debris. J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, 120, 7559-7573.

doi: 10.1002/2015JC010840

Jambeck, J. R., R. Geyer, C. Wilcox, T. R. Siegler, M. Perryman, A. Andrady, R. Narayan, and K. L. Law*, 2015. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 347, 768-771.

doi: 10.1126/science.1260352

Law, K. L.*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, D. Goodwin*, E. Zettler*, E. DeForce, T. Kukulka, and G. Proskurowski*, 2014. Distribution of surface plastic debris in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean from an 11-year data set. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 4732-4738.

doi: 10.1021/es4053076

Goldstein M. and D. Goodwin*, 2013. Gooseneck barnacles (Lepas spp.) ingest microplastic debris in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. PeerJ 1, e184.

doi: 10.7717/peerj.184

Zettler, E. R.*, T. J. Mincer and L. A. Amaral-Zettler, 2013. Life in the ''Plastisphere'': Microbial communities on plastic marine debris. Environ. Sci. Technol., 47, 7137-7146.

doi: 10.1021/es401288x

Kukulka, T., G. Proskurowski*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, D. W. Meyer^ and K. L. Law*, 2012. The effects of wind mixing on the vertical distribution of buoyant plastic debris. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L07601.

doi: 10.1029/2012GL051116

Hirai H., H. Takada, Y. Ogata, R. Yamashita, K. Mizukawa, M. Saha, C. Kwan, C. Moore, H. Gray, D. Laursen, E. R. Zettler*, J. W. Farrington, C. M. Reddy, E. E. Peacock and M. W. Ward, 2011. Organic micropollutants in marine plastics debris from the open ocean and remote and urban beaches. Mar. Poll. Bull. 62, 1683-1692.

doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2011.06.004

Moret-Ferguson, S.^, K. L. Law*, G. Proskurowski*, E. K. Murphy, E. Peacock and C. M. Reddy, 2010. The size, mass, and composition of plastic debris in the western North Atlantic Ocean. Mar. Poll. Bull. 60, 1873-1878.

doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2010.07.020

Law, K. L.*, S. Moret-Ferguson^, N. A. Maximenko, G. Proskurowski*, E. E. Peacock, J. Hafner and C. M. Reddy, 2010. Plastic accumulation in the North Atlantic subtropical gyre. Science 329, 1185-1188.

doi: 10.1126/science.1192321

Selected student research

Bute, A., M. Lebrec and K. Perkins, 2014. The Spatial Distribution of Micro- and Macroplastics in New Zealand Waters. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-256, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Taylor, S., 2014. Vibrio in the Mediterranean Sea and Northeast Atlantic: Strains in the Open Ocean and on Plastic Debris. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-255, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Seely, J. and I. Han, 2014. Macro- and Microplastics Distribution in the Western Mediterranean and Eastern North Atlantic. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-255, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

DeLuna, S., 2013. Methods for Determining the Concentration of Monofilament Line Fragments in the Surface Waters of the North Atlantic and the Potential Impacts on Zooplankton. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-249, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Swinford, J. and E. White, 2013. Ingestion of Plastics by Myctophids in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-248, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Maloney, J. and D. Perry, 2012. Biofilm Growth on Macroplastic: Density and Diversity of Microbial Communities on Plastic in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-242, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Slattery, B., T. Mullen and C. Wine, 2012. Pelagic Microcommunities Living On Floating Debris in the North Pacific Ocean. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-242, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Melvin, W., 2012. Investigation of Plastic Transporting E. coli in the Western North Atlantic Ocean. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-240, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Davis, J. and B. Kahn, 2012. Bite-Sized: The Effects of Microplastic Ingestion on Marine Zooplankton. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-240, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Scott, O., 2011. Plastic: Breeding Grounds for Bacteria: A Study of Bacterial Growth on Plastic in Seawater. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-238, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Chan, W., 2011. Impacts of Microplastics on Salp Feeding and Carbon Export Efficiency in Tropical Pacific. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-238, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Johnson, S., C. Klein and J. Paradis, 2011. A Study of Biofilm Composition and Growth on Macroplastics in the North Equatorial Pacific. Unpublished student research paper, Class S-237, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

White, R. and M. Holleb, 2010. Abundance of Plastics at Varying Levels in the Water Column as a Result of Differing Wind Speeds. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-231, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Trainor, M., 2009. The Distribution of Tar Balls in the Wider Caribbean Region. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-222, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Gotfredson, T., 2007. The Distribution of Pelagic Tar Along an East-West Transect of the Caribbean Sea. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-214, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Bosman-Clark, K. and P. Van Vleet, 2005. An Analysis of Pelagic Tar and Plastic Pollution Along a South-to-North Transect of the Sargasso Sea. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-199, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.

Kraus, P., 2003. Pelagic Tar in the West Atlantic: Concentrations, Trends and Distribution. Unpublished student research paper, Class C-189, Sea Education Association, Woods Hole, MA.


Taylor, S.^, K. Cramer, K. Dooley, K.^, W. Lourie^, T. J. Mincer, L. A. Amaral-Zettler and E. R. Zettler*, 2015. Short-term Microbial Community Assembly on Plastic Marine Debris: Evidence from Experimental Colonization Studies in the Waters of Woods Hole, MA, USA. ASLO Aquatic Sciences meeting, Granada, Spain.

Law, K. L.*, S. E. Moret-Ferguson^, E. R. Zettler*, E. DeForce, and G. Proskurowski*, 2014. A Synoptic Look at Eastern Pacific Microplastic Debris: 11 Years of Consistent Monitoring.  Ocean Sciences meeting, Honolulu, HI.

Zettler, E. R.*, C. Morrall, G. Proskurowski*, T. J. Mincer, and L. A. Amaral-Zettler, 2014. Microbial Succession on Plastic Marine Debris: Development of the ''Plastisphere'' Community. Ocean Sciences meeting, Honolulu, HI.

Mincer, T. J., V. S. Guzzetta, B. Slikas, E. R. Zettler*, and L. A. Amaral-Zettler, 2014. Investigation of Microbial Adherence and Virulence Factors Associated with Open-Ocean Derived Plastic Marine Debris: Vibrio Bacteria as a Model System. Ocean Sciences meeting, Honolulu, HI.

Amaral-Zettler, L. A., G. Boyd, B. Slikas, E. R. Zettler*, and T. J. Mincer, 2014. Comparative Microbial Community Structure and Biogeography of Atlantic and Pacific ''Plastisphere'' Communities. Ocean Sciences meeting, Honolulu, HI.

Duarte, A.^, E. Zettler*, L. Amaral-Zettler, and T. Mincer, 2012. Analysis of Plastics in the Sargasso Sea and Vibrio Interactions with Plastic. Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science meeting, Seattle, WA.


Mincer, T. J., E. R. Zettler* and L. A. Amaral-Zettler, 2016. Biofilms on plastic debris and their influence on marine nutrient cycling, productivity, and hazardous chemical mobility. In The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, Vol: Hazardous Chemicals Associated with Plastics in the Environment, eds. H. Takada and H. K. Karapanagioti. Springer.

doi: 10.1007/698_2016_12

* SEA faculty and staff
^ SEA Semester alumnus


Study Abroad at Sea

Out on the Reef

Posted on: May 10, 2018
By: Carly Carter, A Watch, Longwood University

Yet another beautiful day in Bermuda! Today we got to go to the Aquarium and learn more about Bermuda’s unique marine ecosystem! They had a few radical exhibits, including one about the Sargasso Sea! Alex, Kendra, and I geeked out at the hydroid section of the poster because that is what our experiments are on- check out that Clytia species (surprisingly not noloformis) and that Aglaophenia latecarinata!

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The Global Ocean

Plastics in Our Oceans: We’re All in the Same Boat

Posted on: November 27, 2017
By: S-276 Conservation & Management Class

Hello, dear reader!

Up until now, daily blog posts have covered life onboard our floating home/lab and the cultural research, science deployments, and sail handling—with the occasional relay race or poetic interlude thrown in to boot—that comprise our day-to-day on the Seamans. Today, however, S-276’s Conservation & Management class have the privilege of sharing some of the research we’ve been conducting in both Woods Hole and here in New Zealand (well, several hundred miles offshore, currently).

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SEA Semester

Beach Cleanup & Seaweed Snacks

Posted on: July 12, 2017
By: Ava Kiss and Lauren Adamczyk, Pierson High School and Dover-Sherborn High School

After a lovely cereal breakfast, we headed over to the Madden Center for Oceans & Society class with Kate. Today we learned about container ships and their effect on the oceans and the economy. Next was Oceanography class with Jess where we talked about the many major issues that face our oceans as well as possible solutions.

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SEA Semester

8 Things You Can Do for World Oceans Day!

Posted on: June 08, 2017
By: Jessica Donohue, SEA Research Assistant

This World Oceans Day, the focus is on encouraging solutions to plastic pollution, and preventing marine litter.

At SEA, we’ve been studying plastic pollution for a long time. The plastic we study is collected in our neuston nets floating at the surface of the open ocean.  Mostly, we find microplastics (pieces less than 5mm in diameter, usually broken down from larger objects).

It’s a serious problem, impacting marine life and degrading marine environments.

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Marine Biodiversity & Conservation

Science, Policy, & Trash…Oh my!

Posted on: May 11, 2017
By: Paige Petit, Starboard Watch, College of the Holy Cross

Although we have only been here for about 5 days now, our routine morning stroll to the courtyard in St. George’s already feels instinctive to me. This morning we started off with a special treat from our amazing steward, Sabrina, …homemade bagels! She never fails to keep us full and happy, which is definitely a priority when your daily schedules are as packed as ours are.

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