The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, in the North Pacific Ocean showcases human pollution at its best. The layer of floating plastic debris is said to be three times the area of France. A new study, published in the journal Nature Communications, now found that a growing number of marine animals calls this layer of floating garbage their home – yet another example of how adaptive nature can be when faced with man-made challenges that disrupt ecosystems.
After collecting 103 tonnes of plastic debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in one year, the researchers involved in the study analysed the species found on the floating plastic items in a marine lab. They were surprised to find a wide range of marine species living on the items, including hydroids, amphipods as well as anemones.
The researchers further established that numerous coastal plants and species colonise these plastic items floating in the open ocean. Usually contained to a certain geographical zone, these coastal organisms could potentially explore new frontiers. The study said: “We define this emergent novel ecosystem as the neopelagic community. Although the transport of coastal species across oceans and along coasts on floating debris, also known as ocean rafting, has long been known to occur on natural rafts, including seeds, trees, seaweeds and pumice, past documented occurrences were assumed to be ephemeral. The extent and frequency of coastal species on rafts in the ocean were likely historically constrained, due to the biodegradable nature and, therefore, relatively short longevity of natural materials, as well as a likely limited and highly episodic raft supply.”
Greg Ruiz, who works at the marine lab where the plastic particles were analysed, said: “The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms until now. Partly because of habitat limitation – there wasn’t plastic there in the past – and partly, we thought, because it was a food desert.”
Even though researchers still don’t fully understand how the marine animals living on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch get their nutrients (they suspect that the plastic itself acts like a reef and thus attracts food sources), marine scientists now have an entirely new food system to look at, one that could float to all corners of the world.
It is estimated that plastic pollution in the marine environment will grow in the coming decades, “reaching an estimated total of 25,000 million metric tons of waste generation by 2050”, according to the study. And with growing plastic debris floating in the oceans, how common will these hitch-hiking communities will become?
With climate change exacerbating and storms getting stronger, the possibility of these plastic patches floating to the most remote corners of the world, poses some important questions. For example, what happens when coastal organisms from North America end up in Japan? The situation could lead to more invasive species, ultimately bringing ecosystems around the globe out of balance.
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Photography courtesy of Unsplash.