The floating ocean garbage is home to a lot of life
Ocean Cleanup. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a giant collection of plastic trash floating in the ocean with an unidentified marine population
Scientists studying a giant collection of plastic trash floating in the middle of the open ocean have found some unexpected inhabitants: dozens of marine species that usually stick close to the coast.
Plastic debris in the ocean can be floating for a long time, giving the animals the chance to reproduce and survive for a long time.
A lot of the diversity that we found was coastal and not the native pelagic open ocean species that we were expecting to find.
The unlikely neighbors also probably compete for food, and may eat each other. The researchers spotted coastal anemones that were eating a kind of purple snail that’s native to the high seas.
The creatures survive in the open ocean, but they don’t know how. It is not clear if they attached a piece of plastic to the coast or if they were able to colonize new objects once in the open ocean.
The enormous gyre, which is the biggest of five huge, spinning circular currents in the world’s oceans that pull trash towards the center and trap it there, is the closest patch to the center.
So Haram and her colleagues decided to sample some of the garbage out in the Pacific, with the help of a nonprofit called The Ocean Cleanup, which had gone out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in November of 2018 and January of 2019.
“If you’re out there, what you see is just pristine blue ocean,” said Egger, who helped Haram’s research by collecting the samples in the patch, fishing them out with a net.
It is similar to the night sky. If you look up at night, you see all those white dots, that’s essentially what you see in the garbage patch. It is not that dense, but you can see more plastic the longer you look.
The Ocean Cleanup initiative estimates there are almost two-thirds of a trillion pieces of plastic in the patch. The vast majority of the plastic found in the patch comes from the fishing industry, while between 10% and 20% of the total amount can be traced back to the Japanese tsunami.
But cleanup is only part of the solution. A study published last month said that without urgent policy action, the rate at which plastics enter the oceans could increase by around 2.6 times between now and 2040.
The problem is getting bigger and bigger with each passing minute. “We see turtles that are entangled in ghost fishing nets. Sometimes it’s just turtle carcasses. The plastic fragments were seen being eaten. Chemicals are also pollutants.
The Ocean Cleanup has built a barrier that hangs below the surface of the water to collect trash. It collects faster- moving plastics when it moves with the current.
We want to know what the impact is on marine life. Once we know that it is safe and benefits the environment, we want to scale up.
Even though biologists knew that coastal species can occasionally travel on ships or floating debris, scientists had long thought that coastal species couldn’t live long-term out at sea or establish new communities there.
Differences in temperature, salinity and the availability of nutrients in these two watery environments seemed like potential deal-breakers.
Anemones are interacting on the same piece of trash from Japan’s tsunami and the implications for marine biologist’s thinking
But the March 2011 tsunami in Japan forced marine biologists to rethink their old assumptions. There wereIdentifiable junk from Japan that started turning up in places like Hawaii years later.
The researchers wanted to know about plastic trash items like buckets, crates, bottles, household items, ropes, and parts of fish traps. “And then we had a wild-card category, which was if they came across anything that was super weird and interesting but couldn’t necessarily be categorized otherwise,” explains Haram.
The thing that we saw was definitely anemones. We didn’t expect to see them because they didn’t have a very big signature in the Japanese tsunami debris work,” says Haram.
She says that there are two species living together on the same piece of trash, which means that they must now be interacting.
Haram believes that the findings from this study may have implications for all animals in the upper food chain like turtles, fish, and marine mammals.
“With the latest research, we see that it’s just something that is normal now, that is happening all the time,” says Rech. “Coastal species are traveling on a regular basis, all the time, away from their habitat.”
She thinks the idea that coastal species are able to find new places to grow if they just have something durable anchor onto is a revolution in scientists’ thinking.
On the other hand, says Rech, this study makes her wonder whether the South Pacific really has small numbers of coastal species out there – or if researchers just haven’t found them yet.