- Victoria Gill
- BBC Science Correspondent
Scientists have discovered marine animals living among plastic debris in an area of the open ocean called “the great Pacific garbage patch.”
Many of the creatures are coastal species, living miles from their usual habitats, in a patch midway between the coast of California and Hawaii.
Scientists found plants and animals, including anemones, small sea insects, mollusks and crabs, in 90% of the waste.
What they are concerned about is that the plastic could help transport invasive species.
The study examined articles from plastic over 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter collected from a “gyre,” an area where circulating currents cause floating debris to accumulate, in the Pacific.
“Plastics are more permanent than many natural wastes that have been seen previously in the open ocean. They are creating a more permanent habitat in this area, “says Linsey Haram of the Smithsonian Center for Environmental Research, who is leading the study.
Haram worked with the Ocean Voyages Institute, an NGO conducting expeditions to collect plastic pollution, and with oceanographers from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The world has at least five ocean gyres infested with plastic. It is believed to contain the largest amount of floating plastic – an estimated 79,000 tonnes in a region of more than 1.6 million square kilometers.
“All kinds of things end there”said Dr. Haram. “It is not a plastic islandbut there’s definitely a lot of plastic in there. “
Much of it is microplastic, very difficult to identify with the naked eye.
But there are bigger items too, including abandoned fishing nets, buoys, and even boats that have been floating in the gyre since the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Communications, initially embarked on the investigation after that devastating tsunami.
The disaster caused the ejection of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean and hundreds of coastal marine species from Japan were found alive in items that landed on the Pacific coasts of North America and the Hawaiian Islands.
“We want to understand how plastics can be a means of transport for invasive species to shore,” Haram told the BBC.
Some of the organisms the researchers found in the plastic items they examined were species from the open ocean, organisms that survive by “making rafting“in floating debris. But the most telling find, Haram said, was the diversity of coastal species in the plastic.
“More than half of the articles had coastal species,” he said. “That generates many questions about what it means to be a coastal species. “
The scientists said the discovery highlighted another “unintended consequence” of plastic pollution, a problem that is expected to grow.
An earlier study estimated that for 2050 would be generated a total of 25,000 million tons of plastic waste.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.