Plastic contaminates the coast of Rapa Nui

Every year millions of tons of plastic are dumped into the oceans.  The largest part of this rubbish ends up floating in the so-called “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, contaminating the marine life.  Rapu Nui receives the rubbish from the South Pacific Gyre.

Last April, the crew of the “Sea Dragon”, members of the Non-governmental Organization (NGO) “5 Gyres”, under the leadership of Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, visited Easter Island as part of their study on the global impact of marine contamination produced by plastic rubbish.  To date they have covered more than 20,000 nautical miles exploring the five great sub-tropical oceanic gyres.
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An oceanic gyre is a great pinwheel of water thousands of miles wide, circulating under the strong winds that push these currents on a clockwise path in the Northern Hemisphere and the opposite direction in the Southern Hemisphere.  In the center of these sub-tropical circuits are high-pressure areas, as a result of the west winds around the northern gyres and the easterly trade winds in the Southern Hemisphere.  All the non-degradable rubbish, such as bottles, plastic bags and many other items that are loosed into the ocean, are caught in these swirls.  One of the five great sub-tropical oceanic gyres is the North Pacific Gyre, also referred to as the “Plastic Soup” or the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.  It is an area that is covered with plastic and other types of waste that have been caught up by the currents of the gyre.  It’s estimated size is around 1,400,000 km2 (540.000 sq. mi.).  80% of the rubbish comes from the land and only 20% is dumped from ships.  In spite of its size and density, this oceanic dump is barely visible in satellite photographs and is not able to be found by radar.  Each year millions of tons of plastic end up in the oceans.  At sea, the plastics absorb pollution in high concentrations, and then disintegrate in such a way that they can be ingested by surface marine organisms, thus entering into the food chain.
This group of scientists began their expeditions in 2008 with an exploration of the North Pacific Gyre and followed by the North Atlantic Gyre in 2009, the Indian Ocean Gyre and the South Atlantic Gyre in 2010, finalizing with the South Pacific Gyre, which is located not far from Easter Island, in 2011.  Using special “NASA” nets, they collect samples of the plastics found in each one of these circular currents to study the type of plastic that would be found in throughout the gyre.  They also collect fish to understand how the consumption of micro-particles of plastic affect the marine ecosystems and follow that with studies of the impact of plastic contamination on our health.  Anna Cummins, expedition scientist, notes that “The rubbish is slowly broken down into very tiny particles and these fragments of plastic remain for many years swirling around in the sea.  The danger is in the fish which are eating them.  It’s damaging to the organisms of our marine life and, if we eat the fish, we end up in some way eating our own rubbish.”
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Rapa Nui receives all the rubbish from the South Pacific currents.  As a demonstration, the group made an expedition to Ahu Tongariki and Ovahe beach.  They made a clean-up of the shore in which they collected large quantities of plastic residue and rubbish.  Maeva Icka, of the Municipal Environmental Administration Office, the coordinator of the visit, told that “I learned, with this excursion, that under each rock are micro-particles of plastic and that they are highly contaminating.” 

 

To share the message of the global impact that contamination has, the researchers have invited scientists and other professionals to join their expeditions.  At each stop they offer educational programs in the schools and Rapa Nui was no exception.  At the Colegio Lorenzo Baeza Vega, they explained to the students the poisonous effects of pollution in the sea and the importance of caring for our environment.

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