The amount of plastic debris in the part of the Pacific Ocean known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has grown 100-fold in the past 40 years.
In a paper published today by the journal Biology Letters, scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography report that most of that plastic has degraded into pieces no bigger than a fingernail. But that wasn’t the major finding the scientists are reporting.
The scientists have found that all those pieces of plastic have provided ample opportunity for insects called “sea skaters” to breed.
The AP reports:
“Though plastic debris is giving the insects places to lay eggs, scientists are concerned about the manmade material establishing a role in their habitat.
“‘This is something that shouldn’t be in the ocean and it’s changing this small aspect of the ocean ecology,’ said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein.”
The BBC reports that usually the problem with this much plastic in the ocean is thought to be toxicity when marine life ingest it. But this finding points to issues that may arise from “broader ecosystem effects.”
The BBC wraps that thought up like this:
“‘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.’”
The data for this study was gathered during a the 2009 Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre. According to the press release on the study, data from that expedition, which was published last year, also found that nine percent of the fish captured had plastic waste in their stomachs.
“That study estimated that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific Ocean ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year,” Scripps reports.