New York professor, pollution institute study plastic in the Great Lakes from on board sailing vessel

Sherri Mason once watched a plastic bag blow around Niagara Falls and drop into the water far below.

Although the water looks clean, she knows plastic pollutes the Great Lakes.

The chemistry professor at the State University of New York, decided to study the problem after discovering that it hadn’t been done before.

The 3-week-long study of the Great Lakes will be spent on this vessel, The Flagship Niagara. Photo: Flagship Niagara Conservation League

“There was not a single other study done on this and I thought, ‘oh this is a gold mine,’” she said.  “It is not my expertise, but I started learning more about how they do this field work.”

For help, Mason contacted the 5 Gyres Institute, a group that has studied plastic pollution in the ocean. It is named for five subtropical gyres – rotating ocean currents where plastic can collect. “They are spinning vortexes. Like a toilet without a drain,” said Stiv Wilson, the communication director of the group.

The organization has advocated against plastic pollution on the east and west coasts, but hasn’t worked much in the Midwest, Wilson said.

The Great Lakes study will not only look at the amount of plastic present in the water, but also the amount of plastic the fish are eating, Wilson said.

“Plastic attracts a lot of persistent organic pesticides and the plastic particles in the lake concentrate these pesticides,” he said. “The fish we eat consume this plastic. We want to look at plastic ingestion in the fish and how that travels up the food chain to humans.”

The 5 Gyres Institute essentially catches rides with other scientists studying plastic pollution around the world since it is expensive to sail a boat long distances. When Mason contacted the institute, it was also looking to study the Great Lakes, Wilson said.

“Pollution in our lakes and rivers ultimately ends up in the ocean,” he said. “People have looked at debris on the shoreline, but not in the freshwater systems.  We will be looking at the density of pollution and training a new generation of scientists to monitor it now and in the future. “

Wilson said knowing the problem is half the battle.  The rest is fixing it.

“If you look at this issue as a whole, globally, there are a lot of places where this has never been studied,” he said.

The study starts this summer and repeats annually. Mason, students and faculty from several universities in the region and members of 5 Gyres will study all five Great Lakes for three weeks from on board the Flagship Niagara, provided by the Flagship Niagara League.

The vessel, based at the Erie Maritime Museum in Pennsylvania, is a reconstructed flagship , famous for winning the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.

A trawl filters the water so even the smallest pieces of plastic can be found in the water. Photo: 5 Gyres Institute

The study will be done using a trawl, which is an aluminum box that floats on the water with two wings on either side, Wilson said. A net that catches everything but the water is used within the trawl. The contents of the net are checked for pieces of decomposed plastic, he said.

“We are only going to be hitting a small cross section of the overall lake surface area,” Mason said. “This first attempt should be interesting.”

Simple things like using a reusable grocery bag and not using a bag when only buying one thing can mitigate plastic pollution, Mason said.

“If it is in our water, it is in us,” Mason said. “I want to make people aware that we are the problem, but that often means we are the solution too.”

  • Doug

    I had always heard that most trash in the oceans (and perhaps in the Great Lakes)is plastic. While working for the Park Service in the Apostle Islands in 2005 I did a cleanup on about a mile of beach on Stockton Island, where I was stationed. To my surprise, while I found a hundred or so plastic items I stopped counting cigarette butts when I was well into the hundreds, and only a small fraction of the way down the beach.

    Yes, I know that cigarette butts are biodegradable (eventually), but I wonder how long they take to decompose and whether they are harmful to fish or birds that might swallow them. I would also be interested in finding out what trash, such as cigarette butts perhaps, that a trawler might find when skimming the surface of the Great Lakes.

  • Harold

    It seems that we could greatly reduce the negative impacts of plastic if plastic were made out of biodegradable soy beans instead of petroleum. Of course, many plastic “products” should never be made in the first place.