Coastal marine species are riding the wave of plastic waste discarded in the world’s oceans and making a new home on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Researchers studied plastic debris in the eastern north Pacific subtropical gyre, which is formed by four clockwise currents around the ocean – funnelling marine waste into a huge swirling 620,000 square mile patch of rubbish.
The team identified 484 marine invertebrate species living on the debris, 80% of which were species usually associated with coastal habitats. Evidence of living coastal species was found on 71% of the debris analysed.
Coastal species making their way to open water is not a new phenomenon – nor one solely caused by humans. Marine animals have long been accidentally drifting out to sea aboard ‘natural rafts’ of buoyant vegetation or pumice, but these vessels are short-lived, decomposing over months or a few years.
However, the rise of anthropogenic materials that can survive much longer against the ravages of the high seas – primarily plastics – have enabled those hitching a ride to survive longer periods.
As recently as 2020, species washed into the sea during the 2011 Great East Japan Tsunami have washed up on the west coast of the US, floating thousands of miles on artificial rafts.
On the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, coastal species that wash into the ever-growing rubbish island have not only been found to survive for many years, but are also breeding in their new colony.
The authors, writing in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, call this a ‘neopelagic community’ – neo meaning new and pelagic referring to the open sea.
Rope was found to host the most species, with 24 found on discarded gear, while nets, bottles and ‘wildcard’ items – those that didn’t fit into a standard category – collectively harboured 20 species.
Debris collected included a toothbrush, washing up liquid bottle, fishing net, a jerry can and an eeltrap cone.
The main sources of marine plastic pollution are land-based, originating from household and industrial waste that is either washed or illegally dumped into the sea. However, the fishing industry and aquaculture also contribute a significant volume of marine litter. Ghost gear – old fishing equipment that has been dumped or abandoned – is the most deadly form of plastic pollution for large aquatic mammals, seabirds and turtles.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, at least 14million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year.
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