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.

6 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.

  2. Pescadero says:

    Ocean Cleanup study published in Scientific Reports reveals 75% to 86% of plastic debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) originates from fishing activities at sea.
    According to the study plastic emissions from rivers remain the main source of plastic pollution from a global ocean perspective, however plastic lost at sea has a higher chance of accumulating offshore than plastic emitted from rivers, leading to high concentrations of fishing-related debris in the GPGP.
    New findings confirm the oceanic garbage patches cannot be cleaned solely through river interception and highlight the potentially vital role of fishing and aquaculture in ridding the world’s oceans of plastic.
    Ocean Cleanup’s previous research has shown that almost half of the plastic mass in the GPGP is comprised of fishing nets and ropes (fibrous plastics)
    Article contains a link to the new study, “The Other Source: Where Does Plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Come From?” which also states the primary countries/regions of origin identified on the recovered plastic items were Japan (34%), China (32%), the Korean peninsula (10%), and the USA (7%). Perhaps contrary to expectations, however, other countries at the rim of the North Pacific Ocean with high predicted riverine plastic emissions (such as the Philippines, for example) were not well represented in the plastic items collected from the GPGP.

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