UMCES' Michael Gonsior sees scope of plastic pollution on Pacific Ocean cruise

March 30, 2017

Gliding over the Pacific Ocean about 1,000 miles off California, Michael Gonsior leaned over the side railing of a tall ship to peer into the blue sea.

“You have to look twice. If you’re standing on the railing, and you look down, if you don’t focus your eyes, you may not see it.”

Then it would catch his eye—bobbing along the surface were tiny shards of plastic. Once he caught sight of it, he noticed these small intrusions endlessly covered an otherwise pristine ocean facade.

“In the grand scheme of things we found mostly small, small pieces, which are everywhere, literally everywhere,” described Gonsior, a marine chemist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “That was the most emotional moment: When you have 6,000 meters of water below you and you see these small pieces of plastic floating on top of it.”

Gonsior set sail with a team of scientists a few years ago to survey the extent of plastic in the ocean and how society’s increased reliance on plastic impacts the oceans and world. Their work and findings are captured in a recently released documentary called “A Plastic Ocean.”


Gonsior became involved in the film in 2009 after spending a month at sea together with producer Jo Ruxton. Joining Ruxton on the film were director Craig Leeson, free diver and environmental activist Tanya Streeter, and a group of scientists like Gonsior who could offer expert perspectives on health, science, toxicology, and oceanography.

On the expedition, Gonsior helped use manta trawls—a surface-skimming net stretching about 1.5-feet wide—to pluck even small pieces of plastic from the water for review. The group was just reaching the California current off the coast of San Francisco when it took the first of many samples to shocking results.

“With the first trawl, we found small plastic pieces and that continued throughout,” he said. “We never had a trawl in which we didn’t find any plastic pieces the entire time we were out there. That was probably the most striking part of our whole research cruise.”

Along stretches where two currents converged, trash neatly got in a line for the researchers to observe easily. Gonsior saw beer crates, large floats, and a number of “ghost nets,” referring to forgotten remnants of the ocean’s previous visitors. They pulled some from the water, but had limited space on the tall ship.

It’s about rethinking what we’re doing. Plastic is a very, very useful material, and we use it all the time, but we can use different materials.

Michael Gonsior
UMCES assistant professor

Gonsior spent a month trawling the Pacific Ocean for plastic on this tall ship named Kaisei.

“You can find anything from a toothbrush to a lighter, toys, and plastic bottles,” he said.

Once, out in a dinghy, he recalled spotting a little doll.

“Plastic toys float around forever, I guess.”

One of the common plastics littering the ocean are a kind Gonsior thinks could easily be limited in the future. There were pre-production pellets, a raw plastic shipped in large containers to make plastic products. He feels an industry shift could reduce how much of that raw plastic ends up in the ocean.

The film is meant to be educational and inspire change, Gonsior said. He described it as an adventure of different characters and how both the ocean and plastic are part of their lives.

When Gonsior appears in the film, he is taking air samples in Fiji in the South Pacific, where local communities are burning plastic to light their cooking fires. Plastic waste is a petroleum product and serves as a free type of fuel for families to use, but burning it produces chemicals including carcinogens, he said.

This jar shows the yield of one one-hour trawl Michael Gonsior took in the Pacific Ocean.

“When I took those samples, I almost fainted from the smell of this burning plastic. They’re exposed to that every day, and usually twice or three times a day when they’re making meals. They use it because it’s free. It’s just garbage. That’s just sad to see. That’s like the worst misuse of plastic I can think of.”

Such scenes show the film dives deeper than its title suggests.

“It’s about rethinking what we’re doing. Plastic is a very, very useful material, and we use it all the time, but we can use different materials, especially packaging materials,” he said. “If you think about a plastic bag, the average usage time is 15 minutes or so and then it’s thrown away. There are other solutions.”

He hopes people see the film, learn from it, and become inspired to change how and when they use plastics—and how often they even buy items with plastic.

“It’s not pointing the finger at the plastic industry,” he said of the film. “It’s pointing the finger to all of us.”

Screenings for "A Plastic Ocean" are scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. in the Bernie Fowler Laboratory at Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, located at 142 Williams St., in Solomons, Maryland. Guests are encouraged to arrive early, as seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis for this free public seminar. Visit the film's website to learn more about "A Plastic Ocean." View the full schedule to learn about upcoming Science for Citizens seminars.