Ocean Research Project Receives 2023 Impact Grant

According to National Geographic, an estimated 8 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean each year and some of those materials take at least 400 years to break down. When you factor in other waterbodies, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that number can reach up to 23 million tons. UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen states, “We will not recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis: we need a systemic transformation to achieve the transition to a circular economy.”

The Ocean Research Project (ORP) is seeking to do just that with its Pilot Study to Grade Chesapeake Bay’s Plastic Pollution. This pilot study is intended to seed an ongoing monitoring effort for plastics pollution trends in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, as well as facilitate change to human behavior by providing information about the abundance of single-use plastics and their environmental effects. The Woodard & Curran Foundation hopes to help ORP’s mission to determine particle concentration of plastic pollution across the largest estuary in the country by awarding the non-profit organization the 2023 Impact Grant. This one-year $100,000 grant provides key funds necessary for the ORP to survey the Chesapeake Bay and produce a bay-wide infographic educating the public about the of the extent of this water quality indicator. The work will be shared with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and the media and ultimately aid in prioritizing land-based plastic source management strategies.


Barry Sheff

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The Woodard & Curran Foundation is thrilled to be the principal funder of this first-of-its-kind study that will seed a multi-year collaborative sampling program by federal, state, and local Chesapeake Bay Program partners. Plastics pollution in our estuaries and waterways is a significant and growing problem that is impacting coastal vegetation, marine organisms, and sediments. ORP’s mission and this pilot study aligns with the Foundation’s mission to support projects focused on solving environmental problems.

Laura Tessier Giving Committee Chair Woodard & Curran Foundation

The Woodard & Curran Foundation’s grant-making is possible through the generous giving of Woodard & Curran employee donors, whose support aligns with Woodard & Curran’s commitment to leave the world a better place.

A seaworthy passion

ORP co-director Matt Rutherford made the record books as the first person to complete a non-stop circumnavigation of the Americas single-handedly on a 27-foot sailboat named St. Brendan. While on this 10-month arduous journey, he pulled two fishing lines to supplement his food supply with fresh caught fish. But his lines often caught more plastic trash than fish. Upon his return, Matt founded ORP with the mission to reverse humanity’s negative impact on the ocean through science, exploration, and education. The non-profit organization, based in Annapolis, Maryland, observes the unknown and monitors humanity’s impact on the ocean through dedicated interdisciplinary field expeditions.

Oceanographer Nicole Trenholm joined Matt as a co-founder in charge of developing ORP’s science and education programs. In 2013, they set sail on a steel schooner for what turned into a 70-day expedition in the Atlantic Ocean, collecting samples of plastic debris and mapping out the eastern side of the North Atlantic garbage patch. The following year, ORP extended its marine debris research to the Pacific Ocean. With more than 25,000 miles traversed to date, the team works in close collaboration with scientists across the globe to develop new research expeditions that can be accomplished with sailing vessels, which operate at a fraction of the $25,000 daily cost of a traditional vessel and have a much smaller environmental footprint.

Bringing it closer to home

The Chesapeake Bay Watershed covers 64,000 square miles. The area is a critical ecological resource, with more than 300 species of fish, shellfish, crab, and other wildlife living in the bay, and recreational resource for the area’s 18 million residents. Plastic waste is being ingested by marine species, entangling wildlife, and accumulating in coastal vegetation and sediments.

“We are grateful for the ongoing and significant support of the Woodard & Curran Foundation’s Impact Grant,” said Nicole. “This grant allows us to investigate marine plastic pollution as a water quality threat and confront it across the country’s largest estuary.”

ORP’s Pilot Study to Grade Chesapeake Bay’s Plastic Pollution will be the first to conduct a plastic particle count study to better understand the extent of this category of pollution in the upper water column for each tributary in the region and bay wide. Specifically, the project will assess the plastic particle count in near surface waters of defined transects over two sampling events during the funding period. In cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Program and other partners, ORP plans to repeat this project biannually to enrich understanding of the magnitude of plastic pollution in the bay, export to the ocean, and how that is changing relative to Chesapeake Bay improvements and climate change.

The ORP crew will sail the SRV Marie Tharp to transects during periods for high flow discharge of all rivers in the spring and low flow periods in late fall, sampling plastics via a novel, innovative, flow-through system pumping near surface seawater into the boat’s lab to automatically filter the particles by size classes. Occasional water samples will be saved for genetic testing of the microbial, plankton, zooplankton, and pelagic species associated with plastic impaired water samples, but most particles will be bottled for post-lab processing to be conducted by area graduate students. ORP will then involve local K-12 STEM public school and undergraduate students and community lab members at the Baltimore Underground Science Space charged with systematically counting total plastic particles and determining the number and composition of various plastics materials. The team has also partnered with the University Maryland Center for Environmental Science Report Card/Integration and Application Network (IAN) to aid in educating onboard students in the use of multimedia to document and communicate their scientific data and activity. IAN will also assist in developing high quality graphics for the key project deliverable, a high-end Map Infographic.

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