The world’s biggest accumulation of plastic marine debris, 610,000 sq. miles in area, is three times larger than France and seems to make it virtually impossible for living things to flourish.
But scientists have found the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ has indeed been colonised by animals and plants, all of whom have found a new way to survive in the open ocean.
Researchers said that the floating waste was allowing coastal organisms like anemones, hydrooids, and shrimp-like amphibipods to ‘greatly expand beyond what they thought possible’.
This is a difficult life. Scientists discovered that the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has been colonized by plants and animals, who have all found new ways to live in open ocean.
According to researchers, the floating debris created opportunities for coastal animals such as anemones and hydroids that ‘totally expand beyond what was previously possible.
At least five plastic-infested areas (or ‘garbage patch’) exist around the world. However, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre is the largest with 79,000 tonnes plastic. It lies between California, Hawaii and California.
While ‘garbage patch’ is a misnomer — much of the pollution consists of microplastics, too small for the naked eye to see — floating debris such as nets, buoys and bottles also get swept into the gyres, carrying organisms from their coastal homes with them.
When scientists discovered nearly 300 species of fish had traveled across the Pacific to escape the tsunami debris and became aware that plastic could survive for extended periods in the open sea, they were the first to suspect coastal species might use it.
However, sightings confirmed to have been made of species in coastal waters on plastic were not common.
Linsey Hartam, who was formerly a postdoctoral fellow at Smithsonian Environmental Research Centers (SERC), stated, “The problems of plastic extend beyond ingestion or entanglement.”
It’s allowing coastal species biogeography to expand far beyond what we thought possible.
Ocean plastic gyres form from plastic pollution that is driven off the coasts to areas where the rotating currents capture the floating objects. This can lead to the accumulation of plastic over time.
These communities are called neopelagic by the authors. The term ‘Neo’ means “new” and “pelagic” refers the open ocean as an alternative to the coast.
Haram collaborated with two Oceanographers at the University of Hawaii, Manoa to create models that predicted where plastic would accumulate in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
The information was shared with Ocean Voyages Institute (a non-profit organization that collects plastic pollution from sailing expeditions).
Mary Crowley, Ocean Voyages Institute founder and her team collected plastics from the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre at 103 tonnes during the Covid-19 pandemic’s first year.
She sent some of these samples to SERC’s Marine Invasions Lab, for analysis.
Haram looked into the colonies and identified them as the same species. many coastal species — including anemones, hydroids and shrimp-like amphipods — not only surviving, but thriving, on marine plastic.
“The open sea has never been habitable to coastal organisms up until now,” stated Greg Ruiz of SERC, who is responsible for the Marine Invasions Lab.
‘Partly because of habitat limitation — there wasn’t plastic there in the past — and partly, we thought, because it was a food desert.’
Although plastic is providing habitat, researchers remain puzzled about how the coastal rafters find food.
It could be the plants and animals. The plastic is a natural reef that attracts more food and allows you to drift in existing areas of high productivity.
The impact that these new coastal-rafters could have on the current environment is what scientists are most concerned about.
Open ocean has many of its native species already colonizing floating debris. There is concern that these ecosystems could be disturbed by the introduction of new coastal organisms.
Haram claimed that ‘coastal species are directly competition with these oceanic runners’.
Researchers looked at what had colonised the marine plastic and found many coastal species — including anemones, hydroids and shrimp-like amphipods — not only surviving, but thriving
“They are competing for space. They are competing for resources. They are also competing for resources.
It is also possible that invading species may invade coasts, after being floating for long periods of time in the ocean.
These kinds of scenarios are already unfolding, with Japanese tsunami debris being carried from Japan to North America.
‘Those other coastlines are not just urban centers…. Ruiz explained that the opportunity exists in more remote locations, as well, to protected areas and Hawaiian Islands, national park, marine protected zones, etc.
Although researchers believe they don’t know the exact number of these “neopelagic” communities or whether they are able to sustain themselves, they say that plastic dependence continues to rise.
Researchers estimate that the global cumulative plastic waste will exceed 25 million tonnes by 2050.
Due to climate change, more plastic is expected to be moved out to sea.
Researchers said that colonies of coastal-rafters in the open ocean would continue to grow. This could lead to a transformation in land and water life.
The study has been published in the journal Nature Communications.