Dr. Erik Zettler is a professor of oceanography and the associate dean for institutional relations and research at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass.
Research Summary: Plastic is now the most common form of marine debris, and there is substantial public and scientific interest in this issue. Other than the known problems of entanglement and ingestion by fish, turtles, birds and marine mammals, there are questions of contaminant transport and invasive species that could affect native communities and aquaculture operations. The microbial community that develops on plastic marine debris has been particularly poorly studied, but it could play a role in nutrient cycling, plastic degradation and the spread of potentially harmful microbes. SEA Semester students from colleges across the country have played a major role in plastic marine debris research, collecting and analyzing the most extensive data set on plastic marine debris in the world, with over 10,000 individual net tows in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans since the 1980s. There is a lot of plastic in the ocean, but intense public attention has encouraged a certain amount of media hype that creates misperceptions about the problem. SEA’s extensive data set allows student scientists to objectively examine and characterize the distribution and quantity of plastic in different parts of the ocean, including the so called “Pacific Garbage Patch.”