Plastic in 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch' Has Increased 100-Fold
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
"Alarming amount" of plastic having ecosystem-wide effects
- Common Dreams staff
Plastic garbage in the ocean has increased 100-fold in the past 40 years and could have ecosystem-wide impacts, according to a study released Tuesday.
Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography looked at the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ and found an "alarming amount" of plastic trash, much in small bits.
The plastic trash was leading to an increase in "sea skaters," a marine insect, because the insects were using the increased plastic floating matter as a material to lay their eggs on. This increase may have widespread impacts across the marine food web.
"This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it's having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate," said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, lead author of the study and chief scientist of SEAPLEX, a UC Ship Funds-supported voyage. "We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic."
"Plastic only became widespread in late '40s and early '50s, but now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we've seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic," added Goldstein. "Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better."
Big rise in North Pacific plastic waste
Ms Goldstein and colleagues gathered their information on the abundance of micro-plastic during the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (Seaplex) off California in 2009. They then compared their data with those from other scientific cruises, including archived records stretching back to the early 1970s.
Plastic waste in the North Pacific is an ongoing concern.
The natural circulation of water - the North Pacific Gyre - tends to retain the debris in reasonably discrete, long-lived collections, which have popularly become known as "garbage patches". In the north-eastern Pacific, one of these concentrations is seen in waters between Hawaii and California.
This Scripps study follows another report by colleagues at the institution that showed 9% of the fish collected during the same Seaplex voyage had plastic waste in their stomachs.
That investigation, published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, estimated the fish at intermediate ocean depths in the North Pacific Ocean could be ingesting plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tonnes per year.
Toxicity is the issue most often raised in relation to this type of pollution, but Ms Goldstein and colleagues say broader ecosystem effects also need to be studied.
The abundance of ocean debris will influence the success, or otherwise, of "rafting communities" - those species that are specifically adapted to life on or around objects floating in the water.
Larger creatures would include barnacles and crabs, and even fish that like to live under some kind of cover, but large-scale change would likely touch even the smallest organisms.
"The study raises an important issue, which is the addition of hard surfaces to the open ocean," says Ms Goldstein.
"In the North Pacific, for example, there's no floating seaweed like there is in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. And we know that the animals, the plants and the microbes that live on hard surfaces are different to the ones that live floating around in the water.
"So, what plastic has done is add hundreds of millions of hard surfaces to the Pacific Ocean. That's quite a profound change."
Ms Goldstein's co-authors were Marci Rosenberg, a student at the University of California Los Angeles, and Scripps research biologist emeritus Lanna Cheng.
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Fight Against Marine Garbage Runs Into Plastics Lobby –
Jean-Michel Cousteau “shocked” by state of oceans
“Every time I stick my nose in the water, I am shocked. I see less and less fish and more and more garbage,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary marine explorer and ecologist Jacques Cousteau, who has spent four decades making documentaries and educating people about the oceans.
On trips to the remote and uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Cousteau found miles and miles of plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, television tubes, spray cans, broken toys, and thousands of other pieces of plastic on the beaches and thousands of tonnes of derelict fishing nets in the reefs.
“We are using the oceans as a universal sewer,” he told some 440 participants from the plastics manufacturing, food and beverage sectors, environmental organisations, scientists and policy-makers from over 35 countries at the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, which ended Mar. 25.
Humanity is risking its own health and survival in treating the oceans this way, Cousteau said. The oceans are the source of life on our planet.