Tara’s new research in the Northeast Pacific plastic accumulation zone

© Fabien Lombard / Fondation Tara Expéditions

After monitoring coral in Hawaii, the Tara team will have an exceptional occasion (from June 19th to July 2) to cross the North Pacific gyre commonly called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” (GPGP) — one of the world’s most concentrated areas of plastic. The scientific research team on board, led by Maria Luiza Pedrotti of the Oceanographic Laboratory in Villefranche-sur-mer, will study the life of creatures thriving in such plastic vortexes, and try to understand the interactions between living organisms and microplastics.


What is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch ?

Circular oceanic currents create a huge gyre (whirlpool) that accumulates at its center plastic debris, as well as plankton and seaweed originating from sources along the gyre. Data from circumnavigations, regional surveys, and previously published reports have now confirmed that 5 gyres exist in the world, characterized by relatively high concentrations of floating plastic: in the North and South Pacific, the North and South Atlantic and also in the Indian Ocean.


carte great garbage patch plastique eng


Evaluate the ecosystem structure of plankton in contact with plastic

A large range of sea creatures interacts with plastic waste on a regular basis, however there is less research as of now documenting the relationship between zooplankton and microplastics. Tara’s research team proposes to investigate the potential ingestion of plastic by news. Due to its color and small size, animals confuse the microplastics for food. We will calculate the plastic to plankton ratio, using a diverse range of zooplankton and concentrations of plastic particles across a wide area.

In order to better understand this ratio, the zooplankton and microplastics will be enumerated, sorted, and measured using a Zooscan system. This instrument performs the digitization and semi-automatic analysis of collected samples, and therefore will enable researchers to simultaneously study the space occupied by both plankton communities and by microplastics.

Identify the attached fauna, flora and fungi

The second part of Tara’s research will be to understand how plastic particles are being used as rafts for non-indigenous marine organisms. Such organisms favor colonizing new environments and pose a major risk to the equilibrium of marine ecosystems. Not only are marine organisms using these plastics, but they can also be used by various toxic and pathogenic creatures “The Identification of species associated with plastics will make it possible to determine bio-geographic zones of colonization,” explains chief researcher Maria Luiza Pedrotti, “and help us better understand the potential dispersion of this organisms.


Echantillon d’eau de mer prélevé avec le filet haute vitesse : les particules flottant en surface sont majoritairement du plastique.
A sample of sea water where microplastics and plankton coexist – © Maéva Bardy / Tara Expeditions Foundation


Our global objectives :

1) Assess spatial distribution of floating plastic fragments (0.3 – 50 mm and 0.02 – 0.3 mm) in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch;
2) Evaluate the ecosystem structure of plankton in contact with plastic fragments order to determine a plastic plankton ratio,
3) Analyze the attached microbial communities and organic contaminants associated with microplastics.
4) Sequence the DNA of attached microbial communities
5) Chemical characterization of the different plastic polymers

All this information will expand the Tara Oceans database – the world’s largest database about marine ecosystems – contributing physical parameters, parameters about plastic, and plankton biodiversity.


This work is being done in collaboration between the Sorbonne University, Laboratoire

Oceanographique de Villefranche, CNRS, Genoscope-CEA, Mercator, University of Maine, ,  Laboratoire d’Océanographie Microbienne de Banyuls-sur-mer,  Centre Scientifique de Monaco (CSM), Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, Laboratoire Universitaire de Biodiversité et d’Ecologie Microbienne.