Sheri's sailing blog

Sailing for science and sustainability

Citizen science at sea – confronting, consciousness raising and a call to action

  • Processing data from the Manta Trawl
    Sheri Bastien
  • Hauling up the Niskin bottle
    Sally Earthrowl
  • Circularity Protocol Assessment with Pindy and Lindsey in Oranjestad.
    Sheri Bastien
  • Sediment samples to be shipped to the UK for processing.
    Sheri Bastien

Being a social scientist, it is not often I get the opportunity to get my hands ‘dirty’ in quite the same way as I’ve been able to as a crew member aboard eXXpedition. 

Citizen science at sea – confronting, consciousness raising and a call to action

It is interesting to reflect on being involved in citizen science as a participant, rather than the one driving the research. For me it reiterates what a powerful, transformative and meaningful approach it is to raising awareness about an issue, but also the potential it holds for catalyzing action.

Here’s an overview of our land and sea-based citizen science activities on Leg 5:

In Aruba we used the Circularity Assessment Protocol developed by the New Materials Institute at the University of Georgia, a citizen science approach to collect data characterizing and mapping the flow of plastic in communities to help understand the factors influencing the different components of the system and stakeholders. We used an app called the Marine Debris Tracker, which allowed us to catalogue the various types of litter we collected from residential, industrial and other areas of Oranjestad. For instance, we logged number of cigarette butts, straws, bottles, takeaway containers and so on. These are subsequently categorized as plastic, cloth, glass, fishing gear, metal and processed lumber, creating a global database of marine litter and debris.

Mapping the trail of waste we leave behind us is an important consciousness raising activity and it struck me that although this activity is a particularly relevant to use with school children, it is also a good primer for virtually everyone as it forces you to suddenly take stock of how much litter is present that you may become ‘blind’ to over time.

Whilst at sea, we collected three types of data.

The Manta Trawl was placed alongside the boat for 30 min stretches to collect microplastics on the surface of the ocean. The contents were sorted through 3 sieves of different sizes, with organic matter set aside while plastics are collected and preserved for further analysis. This was a time consuming, but powerful and confronting experience because it is where we got to see first hand the extent of plastics on what appeared to be a pristine ocean surface. The tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

We identified a wide range of different types and sizes of plastics.  I learned a new word on this voyage and one I’ll not soon forget: nurdle. Nurdles are pea or lentil sized (1-5mm) pre-production pellets (manufactured by chemical companies from petroleum-based, non-renewable resources) that leak into the ocean during the transportation process, for instance from ships, trains, and transport trucks. I came to see how ubiquitous nurdles were in the area we sampled and given their resemblance to fish eggs it isn’t hard to see how easily they would be consumed by fish and other marine species. The surface of the nurdles may also contain a range of toxins which then make their way up the food chain and potentially onto our dinner plates. Approximately how many nurdles are out there? According to The Great Nurdle Hunt, an environmental charity dedicated to tackling the issue, across Europe the number is estimated to rise to as much as 78,000 tonnes of nurdles annually, whilst the global estimate runs close to 230,000 tonnes polluting our oceans every year.

The Niskin bottle was used to collect data below the surface (three repeats at 25m) to help understand how plastic might sink in the upper water column.

The Van Veen Grab was used to collect samples from the sediment floor to investigate whether sediments are indeed the 'ultimate sink' for microplastics.

Samples from the Niskin and Sediment Grab will be analyzed in the UK by the team at Uni of Plymouth. We are told we will be informed of the outcome of these samples and I plan to follow this closely as it will be interesting to see the volume of plastics and toxins detected given how much we observed on the surface sampling.

In just over a year, the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development will take effect. There are still many knowledge gaps to be filled to inform debate, policy and future research. This makes eXXpedition’s mission highly relevant and exciting to be a part of. 

At the end of this month, I will travel to Tromsø to participate in the Arctic Ocean Decade Workshop: Policy-Business-Science-Dialogue which is organized by the Norwegian Research Council. The workshop is part of a global consultation process in preparation of the UN Decade, and will provide a platform for  discussion about projects and proposals for Arctic initiatives to be framed under the UN Decade. I see this as an opportunity to get engaged on this issue at the national level and network with other researchers who have an interest in seeing social science perspectives included in debates that will inform future funding and policy.

Published 13. January 2020 - 19:07 - Updated 17. January 2020 - 14:16