IN-PROGRESS: MARINE DEBRIS ART PROJECT
Plastic litter is everywhere. It finds its way to remote areas, far removed from places where we produce, use, and dispose of plastic. For example, consider plastic in the middle the vast Pacific. Ocean currents effectively convey plastic trash across great distances and concentrate garbage in giant areas called gyres or "garbage patches." A small portion of that material is attributable to fallen freight from cargo ships. However, the bulk of plastic in our oceans is not material lost in transit to factory or market. Rather, it is post-consumer waste, litter that either bypassed or escaped from waste management systems.
Plastic debris is conspicuous at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a site near the western end of the Hawaiian archipelago. Midway is so-named for its location in the North Pacific Ocean, midway between North America and Asia. It consists of a ring-shaped reef which encompasses a lagoon and three small islands. One explanation for plastic on Midway was the 2011 tsunami, following the Great Tōhoku earthquake in Japan. That March, a sea surge completely submerged Midway's low-lying Eastern Island, leaving behind all manner of plastic debris. Another phenomenon that explains Midway's plastic is rocky reef structures functioning like giant combs, filtering and snagging material borne on ocean currents. This problem is especially noticeable with abandoned fishing nets, so called "ghost nets." A third pathway is via albatross. To describe that process, it's helpful first to consider the life history of an albatross.
Albatrosses live most of their lives at sea. They return to land for one purpose: to reproduce and raise young. This land-dependent sliver of their existence provides a glimpse into the life of an albatross, a life which is decades long and largely unobserved by humans. These large seabirds congregate on small islands where their nesting colonies are extremely high-density. On Midway, a census of Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis) conducted during the early breeding season might easily report 800,000 or more birds. When I had opportunity to observe these astonishing birds, they made two major impressions on me. First, they are remarkably social. Adults busy themselves with complex, synchronized interactions, in pairs or among groups of three or four birds. These interactions entail sequences of vocalizations, bill chattering, and dance-like movements. My second impression: their consumption of plastic is disquieting.
Plastic floating on open waters can resemble prey items for the albatross, such as squid and fish. In addition to intentional capture of plastic items, albatrosses can also inadvertently consume plastic because they forage by skimming their bills along the water surface. Albatrosses carry plastic back to the colony in their digestive systems, and then feed it to chicks. Naturally, the birds cannot digest plastic. As it happens, however, consuming non-digestible marine debris is a normal part of albatross biology. Though plastic is a novel element, pumice stones and squid beaks are not new and are, in fact, commonly ingested. The albatross has a special adaptation, a response to regurgitate non-digested materials in a bolus, or ball-shaped clump. Expelling a bolus can reduce a bird's weight, and chicks typically regurgitate before first flight. Many of the small plastic items in the albatross colony arrived either by bolus or by decomposing carcass.
The bolus has an evolutionary history and, at least superficially, a novel usefulness. However, little is known about deeper biological effects of plastic consumption. Based on what we do know about plastic's negative impacts on wildlife and ecosystems, we wonder about effects on the albatross, effects at all levels of biological organization. That includes organ system health (e.g., digestive or endocrine); survival of individual adults or chicks; population trends; and species persistence. Such research has yet to be done. In the meanwhile, plastic persists (and continues to accrue) in the environment.
Most efforts to collect and remove debris from waters, reefs, and shorelines focus on large items such as tires and nets. However, plastic's natural progression is to become brittle and break into smaller and smaller fragments. While plastics do not decompose, they do degrade. That process is accelerated by exposure to seawater and sunlight. These conditions can also deform plastic, re-shaping familiar objects into unrecognizable blobs.
Those tiny shards and globs captured my imagination as an artist. I wanted to explore the density and ubiquity of these small plastic pieces. To do that, I measured out small plots (1 x 1 meter) and picked up everything I could identify as plastic. I recorded the amount of time spent isolating plastic from organic litter and sand. My efforts made only a slight difference in the plots' appearances. In addition to considering the quantity of plastic, I wanted to characterize these objects. Particularly, I'm interested in the fate of utilitarian objects, such as bottle tops and toothbrushes, to become less than useless, and to disrupt natural systems. I'm creating a series of drawings and paintings that examine these ideas of deterioration. The work also reflects on greater themes of consumption, disruption, familiarity and strangeness.
. . . more images to come . . .