The first analysis of water samples taken by an ocean racing yacht suggest there could be even more plastic in the sea than scientists had feared.
The Turn the Tide on Plastic boat, which Sky Ocean Rescue partners, is competing in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race.
But it’s also sampling the water on route for tiny fragments of plastic, some invisible to the naked eye.
The first analysis of samples taken on the first leg, from Alicante to Lisbon, found there were up to 300 pieces of microplastic in every cubic metre of water.
Dr Toste Tanhua, of the Geomar Oceanography Centre in Germany, told Sky News that it had been thought such high levels were only found on the surface – not below the waterline, where the samples were taken.
“It’s very significant. It means that we have more plastic in the ocean than we thought,” he said.
“The plastic is in a place where most of the biology is happening in the ocean, the top layer. There is a big risk of it being eaten by plankton and fish – and ultimately you and me if we eat those fish.”
The scientists are now starting to analyse the samples taken on the 7,000-mile leg from Lisbon to Cape Town.
Dee Caffari, who skippers Turn the Tide on Plastic, said they had seen buckets, bottles and lumps of polystyrene in remote parts of the Atlantic. They even got caught up in some plastic.
“We had a vibration on the rudder when we were sailing,” she said.
“We have an endoscope to look under the boat and we saw something so we had to stop, clear the rudder and sail off again. That is more than likely to have been plastic of some description, whether a bag, a tarpaulin or a fishing net.”
As well as testing for plastic, the equipment on board the boat measures the water’s temperature, salinity and carbon dioxide concentration.
Scientists know little about the ocean away from shipping routes, or areas that have been studied by research vessels. But the 52,000-mile Volvo race gives them the chance to sample previously inaccessible areas of sea.
Niklas Kilberg, who heads the Volvo science programme, said “They sail in parts of the ocean that scientists never get to. That’s what is unique about this programme – we get data from remote parts of the ocean.”
:: You can find out more about the Sky Ocean Rescue campaign and how to get involved at www.skyoceanrescue.com