While other tourists go to Alaska to see grizzly bears or whales, Stony Brook professor Carl Safina went to find trash, particularly the man-made refuse that floats in the Pacific and litters Alaska's southwestern beaches.
"Plastic is building up in the oceans every day, and it reaches the most distant shores," Safina, the expedition's lead scientist, said. "These things kill and maim and cause suffering. We could do better. We can make a better deal with the world and with our children and grandchildren."
Safina joined a group of artists and scientists representing organizations including National Geographic, Ocean Conservancy and the Smithsonian Institution to document and collect debris from the North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The crew's discoveries will be on display at the Anchorage Museum in 2014 and are then expected to be repackaged by the Smithsonian into a traveling exhibit. Safina returned to New York last week.
While Alaska's coastline is a continent away from Long Island, the issue of marine debris is a familiar one as wreckage from superstorm Sandy continues to clog local shorelines.
Jason Rolfe, coordinator of the superstorm Sandy response at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program, said he continues to receive reports of submerged boats, docks and other debris in the Great South Bay and Long Island Sound. Federal, state and local agencies are to conduct aerial flights and ocean surveys, starting next month, and are setting priorities for debris removal, he said.
Safina's crew sailed on the Norseman, a 130-foot ship previously used for catching crabs before being renovated for research. In his first dispatch posted online at the National Geographic website, Safina said the ship was "stopping at several places along the way, bearing witness, perhaps witnessing bears, and talking trash."
Much of the debris the team picked up on beach cleanups -- bottle caps, cigarette lighters, plastic bags -- drifted into waterways and then the ocean, Safina said. The group also collected abandoned fishing gear and dozens of bird-feeders and fly swatters, which Safina said may be the contents of shipping containers tossed overboard during storms.
Birds can eat the smaller floating items, which can be harmful, and the fishing gear can be fatal to seals and dolphins, Safina said. Turtles often mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, which they eat. The impact on humans can include falling property values where the coast is "fouled with junk," Safina said.
The problem is the result of a "throwaway culture," said Safina, a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship known as a Genius Grant.
"Why do we package yogurt, which lasts two weeks, in an eternal material?" he asked.
The amount of trash is particularly striking given Alaska's small population, said Julie Decker, chief curator at the Anchorage Museum and a member of the expedition.
Waterborne debris around Long Island could end up like that in Alaska, pushed by underwater currents into a vortex known as the North Atlantic Gyre, said Lawrence Swanson, associate dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook. Lighter material near the surface will likely return to shore, guided by southwestern summer winds, he added.
Rob Welton, the president of Freeport-based Operation SPLASH, which locates debris in the South Shore's western bays, said his greatest concern is the refuse-killing grasses that hold together the Island's marshland.
Safina suggested the solutions start close to home where people can help clean up local beaches.
"It feels good to pick up a few balloons and know that those are just a few fewer for sea turtles to run into," he said.