Anela Choy is an Assistant Professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, CA. An avid surfer born and raised in Hawaii -- you can see her in action at the Scripps Pier -- it's no surprise Choy is dedicated to researching the ocean.
Today she and her team released their new findings in Nature's Scientific Reports that, "suggest that one of the largest and currently underappreciated reservoirs of marine microplastics may be contained within the water column and animal communities of the deep sea."
Finding microplastics in sea life in the deep ocean is alarming, as it's the area that hosts the largest ecosystem on earth. Microplastics are small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long, which are a byproduct of our continued dependency on plastic products.
The WSL recently caught up with Choy to disucss her love of the ocean and her recently published work, and we encourage you to learn more about how to #StopTrashingWaves at WSL PURE.
You're originally from Hawaii.
Yeah my family has been there for five generations so we've been there a long time. We basically grew up in the ocean and that was really what shaped my interest in oceanography and science.
It was a very natural career path. I grew up mostly swimming and free diving. I actually didn't find surfing until graduate school, then I was immediately hooked. It took over things at that time. That was about ten to fifteen years ago.
And now you're based in La Jolla.
Yes, I'm a new professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and we're a department within the University of California San Diego. We study the open ocean environment and the deep sea and we focus on food webs, which are the connections of feeding that all of the animals that live together in the ocean have.
We care about food webs for a number of different reasons - they're incredibly important for ocean health. They also are food for big animals that we care about such as tuna, whales, and sea birds. All of those things rely on healthy food webs which are important in regulating our climate and they also have a lot of economic value all over the world.
Describe your head space going into this research.
Hawaii is this cultural hot bed of intersecting people, ideas, and initiatives. It's a really exciting place where you grow up seeing connections between things - whether it's between people or some event that happened many years ago.
You just start thinking about how connected things are even though you're this remote archipelago of islands in the middle of the biggest ocean on the planet. I've carried that idea into my research and that's why I'm interested in food webs.
The way we got to plastic pollution was by studying big fish caught in deep waters around Hawaii. We wanted to know what they were eating, and it turns out they're eating a lot of plastic. A ton of plastic, actually. We looked at hundreds and hundreds of fish and we found that approximately one in three fish had some amount of man made plastic debris in their stomach.
How do these findings impact surfers at their local breaks?
Well we know about plastics nowadays, they're pretty well understood. We know where this stuff is coming from -- it's coming from us, from land-based sources.
In order for plastic to make its way from land to sea, then to the deep sea, it has to have some kind of passage through those coastal waters. It's directly connected to us even though the deep sea feels far away since you can't access or perceive it unless you're on a boat or flying over it in a plane.
We need to be really careful about the decisions we make every day in terms of what kind of products we use, what kind of consumption habits we have and how we care for our environment.
The next big step is using less plastic, so less can escape as future pollution.
Do you see the surf industry at large having an impact?
Yeah, absolutely. I'm not completely familiar with that scene but I was living in Santa Cruz for four years before I moved down to La Jolla. There were surfboard shapers up there who started getting into environmentally friendly materials.
There's a movement in terms of thinking about our impact as surfers on the environment and with regards to plastic in particular. Our fins are made out of plastic, our leashes are made out of plastic, there's a lot of room that we can use to make a difference.
Where does your research sit in relation to the existing research that's been done in this field?
We went beyond looking at plastic pollution at the surface of the ocean. As surfers we sit on our boards out in the lineup, at that surface layer of the ocean, and we can just look around and see what's there.
We took it one step further and wanted to see what sort of plastic pollution there is below the surface. And we did that with the help of really cool technology and toys in a way - deep diving, remotely operated vehicles that were operating below our ships out at sea, collecting big water samples for us.
We were looking for the the smallest types of plastic pollution in these water samples, these microplastics. Like I said, that's a really important perspective to take because we're not just a surface ocean. We're a full, deep and open ocean ecosystem.
What is the most impactful action surfers can take to change the microplastic situation in the ocean?
It's kind of simple, but the action of picking up a piece of trash when you see it, whether its on the beach or in the water. That's one less piece of trash that is out there for some amount of time and has the potential to break into thousands of other pieces of microplastics.
So you think you just put one water bottle cap in your surf shorts, but that cap might stay out there for years and turn into many other pieces of plastic. That's one really simple thing we overlook and that anyone can do.