Story at a glance
- “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is one of many areas in the vast ocean where plastic pollution and other debris naturally concentrate due to ocean currents.
- The floating mass of debris covers an estimated 610,000 square miles of ocean.
- In a new paper published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center detail how coastal species have now colonized the garbage patch and are making new communities in the open ocean.
Some 79,000 metric tons of plastics, including fishing nets, plastic bottles and microplastics are currently floating around a remote part of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and California.
“The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is one of many areas in the vast ocean where plastic pollution and other debris naturally concentrate due to ocean currents.
The floating mass of debris covers an estimated 610,000 square miles of ocean, and that figure is expected to keep growing as more plastics are discarded into the environment.
And more recently, scientists have made some surprising discoveries about what the environmental disaster means for coastal animal life.
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In a new paper published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center detail how coastal species have now colonized the garbage patch and are making new communities in the open ocean.
“The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Linsey Haram, lead author of the study and former postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Center, said in a statement.
“It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.”
In collaboration with Ocean Voyages Institute and the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, researchers gathered 103 tons of plastics and other debris from the patch and analyzed various samples.
During their analyses, researchers found many coastal species such as anemones, hydroids and shrimp-like amphipods living on marine plastic.
Researchers say coastal species hitching rides across the ocean via natural materials like trees and seaweed is nothing new, but the garbage patch is offering species a way to survive in the open ocean in the long term. Up until now, the open water has not been a habitable environment for coastal organisms.
“Floating plastic debris from pollution now supports a novel sea surface community composed of coastal and oceanic species at sea that might portend significant shifts in the marine environment,” the study’s authors wrote.
The open ocean appears to provide enough food to sustain the species, and scientists speculate that may be because the plastic itself acts like a reef that attracts food sources.
Researchers first got the inkling large swaths of debris could support coastal life following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and unleashed debris that eventually made its way across the Pacific over several years. Nearly 300 species were discovered to have hitched a ride and landed on the shores of the Pacific Northwest.
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