New life in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”

Not necessarily a “good thing” either…

Coastal plants and animals have found a new way to survive in the open ocean—by colonizing plastic pollution. A new commentary published…in Nature Communications reports coastal species growing on trash hundreds of miles out to sea in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, more commonly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

“The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” said Linsey Haram, lead author of the article and former postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible…”

Gyres of ocean plastic form when surface currents drive plastic pollution from the coasts into regions where rotating currents trap the floating objects, which accumulate over time. The world has at least five plastic-infested gyres…The authors call these communities neopelagic. “Neo” means new, and “pelagic” refers to the open ocean, as opposed to the coast. Scientists first began suspecting coastal species could use plastic to survive in the open ocean for long periods after the 2011 Japanese tsunami, when they discovered that nearly 300 species had rafted all the way across the Pacific on tsunami debris over the course of several years. But until now, confirmed sightings of coastal species on plastic directly in the open ocean were rare…

“The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms until now,” said SERC senior scientist Greg Ruiz, who heads the Marine Invasions Lab where Haram worked. “Partly because of habitat limitation—there wasn’t plastic there in the past—and partly, we thought, because it was a food desert.”

The new discovery shows that both ideas do not always hold true. Plastic is providing the habitat. And somehow, coastal rafters are finding food. Ruiz said scientists are still speculating exactly how—whether they drift into existing hot spots of productivity in the gyre, or because the plastic itself acts like a reef attracting more food sources.

So, now, coastal species are competing with open ocean species – some of which are also capable of colonizing floating debris. Our pollution has aided in the creation of a new geography and we haven’t a clue what will be the result.

4 thoughts on “New life in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”

  1. Evolution says:

    In a study that truly underscores the profound and devastating impact humans have on the environment, researchers have found that microscopic bugs are evolving to eat plastic.
    The study, published in the journal Microbial Ecology, found a growing number of microbes that have evolved to carry a plastic-degrading enzyme. These bugs could hold the key to creating enzymes that break down specific plastics and alleviate the detrimental effects of anthropogenic pollution.

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