In the North Pacific there is a giant garbage room made of plastic waste. The floating island weighs around 80,000 tons and covers an estimated area of 1.6 million square kilometers – that’s twice the size of texas and three times the size of France.
Plastic islands form when surface currents push trash off the coast to swirling regions, where it is trapped. The pile grows over time as the waste accumulates.
There are at least five such mounds in the world, with the North Pacific’s “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” between California and Hawaii being the largest.
Experts are monitoring these environmental disasters, trying to find ways to tackle the problem.
Now in a new comment piece published in the journal Nature Communication, scientists found that marine species began to colonize plastic.
This is not a good thing, say the authors of the article.
“The problems with plastic go beyond ingestion and entanglement,” Linsey Haram, senior author of the article and former postdoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), said in a press release.
“This creates opportunities for the biogeography of coastal species to extend considerably beyond what we previously thought possible.”
Scientists first suspected that creatures could use plastic to survive on the high seas in 2011, following the Japanese tsunami. In the years that followed, nearly 300 species were found clinging to various pieces of tsunami debris that floated across the Pacific, some finding their way to North America, invasive species in tow.
But sightings of animals on plastic in the high seas have been rare, according to the study’s authors.
For their article, Haram worked with a nonprofit called Ocean Travel Institute, which collects plastic pollution, and a duo of oceanographers from the University of Hawaii named Jan Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko.
Using prediction models created by Hafner and Maximenko to determine where plastic was most likely to accumulate in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the Ocean Voyages Institute set out to collect the trash – over 103 tonnes in during the first year of the pandemic only, the authors say.
Some of these samples were shared with Haram. The analysis revealed colonization of several coastal species, including “anemones, hydroids and shrimp-like amphipods” which appear to “thrive” on Garbage Island.
“The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms so far,” Greg Ruiz, SERC Senior Scientist. noted.
“Partly because of the habitat limitation – there was no plastic there in the past – and part, we thought, because it was a food desert.”
Clearly – this is not true. Scientists are now observing plants and animals in a new habitat, and they somehow manage to maintain themselves. A problem arises when considering the native species that colonize the floating debris in the open sea. Having to compete with new coastal species could disrupt the ecosystem, Haram says.
Plastic, which comes from different parts of the world, also increases the risk of carrying invasive species, much like the situation that occurred with the tsunami debris.
The next step, scientists say, is to dive deeper into these deep-sea colonies and find out what motivates them and the risks they may pose to local ecosystems.
“Coastal species are in direct competition with these ocean rafters,” Haram said.
“They compete for space. They compete for resources. And these interactions are very poorly understood.”
Thumbnail image created by Cheryl Santa Maria. Plastic bag: Sarah2 / CanvaPro