A passion to clean up the Pacific Ocean's great 'garbage patch'
Avid sailor and educator Mary Crowley is recruiting help to clean up the North Pacific Trash Gyre, a 'garbage patch' of plastic and other trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
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The Kaisei covered 3,000 nautical miles from Aug. 4 to 31. It conducted several surface trawls every day and night. Every trawl came up with plastics of various sizes, shapes, and colors.Skip to next paragraph
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The discovery disturbed Crowley, who had been in the area 30 years earlier as a sailor. A native of Illinois, she spent her formative years sailing on Lake Michigan. "I grew up with a vision of doing long-distance sailing," she says, recalling efforts as a youngster to convince her parents to "give up everything and just sail."
After college Crowley became involved in the boat delivery business and eventually boat chartering, which is still what she does from her offices in Sausalito, Calif. She is also an educator, one of the founders in 1979 of the Ocean Voyages Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching the maritime arts and sciences.
Three decades ago, Crowley and Peter Sutter, a renowned San Francisco yachtsman and sailmaker, took the 33-foot sailboat Spirit into the North Pacific, not toward some distant shore but out to the equivalent of ocean wilderness. Their destination was the North Pacific Gyre.
Over four or five days in the becalmed mid-ocean, Crowley says, they saw only a handful of pieces of plastic and one small abandoned fishing net.
Fast-forward to 2009, and Crowley's alarm at the concentration of trash she found last summer is understandable.
Yet as she sits in her Sausalito office with the San Francisco Bay visible over her shoulder, Crowley does not come across as an alarmist. "The big challenge for us is to get the word out that we do have the technology to figure out how to solve" this problem, she says.
She is raising money and enlisting support for a two-month expedition this summer, costing about $1.7 million. She envisions a small flotilla comprising a couple of fishing boats, a tug or marine supply ship, a barge, and the Kaisei.
He was impressed with Crowley's solution-oriented attitude. "I was looking for someone who wanted to take this from the activist stage to the execution stage," he says.
Crowley wants to recycle the plastic, not just relocate the trash onshore. She knows there are no quick fixes here and that any cleanup needs to be combined with tougher maritime laws, as well as tougher recycling laws on the mainland to curtail the flow of garbage. Some 60 to 80 percent of the plastic in oceans is not released by ships but originates onshore before being swept out to sea via coastal waterways.
Enormous questions remain about the best ways to collect ocean plastics without harming sea life. Large fine-mesh nets might do the job, but would also scoop up marine creatures.
But Crowley doesn't seem overwhelmed.
"We want to make this everyone's problem, and everyone's solution," she tells the fishermen meeting in Rocklin.