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Hong Kong "Junk" Boat Trip Explores Oceanic Pollution

Junk boats—Chinese sailing vessels designed over two thousand years ago during the

Han dynasty—are still a common sight in Hong Kong today. However, participants on the field excursion led by the Ocean Recovery Alliance (ORA) had the opportunity to experience a literal “junk” boat as they trolled the waters around Hong Kong for plastic matter. The unique field experience attracted a wonderful mix of students, lifelong learners, faculty and staff who all shared a common curiosity about oceanic pollution.

As the group sailed out of Hong Kong harbor they were introduced to ORA’s work by the organization’s founder, Doug Woodring. He described the numerous ways that plastic trash ends up in our oceans and the disastrous effects it’s having worldwide. “Now even the most remote ecosystems on the planet have plastic in them,” Doug explained. “Plastic waste is a huge issue for every city, every community, and every company.”

All  participants on board were invited to become part of the research efforts by helping to collect data on the amount of plastic trash seen floating in the waters around Hong Kong, and by using a specialized collection net trolling behind the boat to test the water for micro-plastics. Frank von Hippel, a faculty member from the University of Alaska Anchorage, who co-led the trip and provided important scientific context for the experience, indicated that this kind of research is an ongoing effort on board the MV Explorer. Students in his Marine Biology class are taking part in data collection efforts throughout the semester for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by filling in data sheets that quantify the type, size, and amount of oceanic debris that they see from the ship. “Students from that class are seeing firsthand what the key issues are regarding plastic waste, while also learning how to quantify pollution at sea,” von Hippel explained.

Participants in the day-long “junk” boat experience were pleasantly surprised to find much less plastic than expected in their collected samples as they sailed between downtown Hong Kong and Lamma Island. However, the experience still reinforced the importance of addressing the issue of plastic debris and its effect on ecosystems worldwide. Lifelong Learner, Tom Cunningham, who spent twenty-two years both on active and reserve duty as a line officer in the U.S. Navy has witnessed the growing problem firsthand. “I didn’t notice much plastic debris when I was in the Navy in the 60s, but I notice it a great deal now.”

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