Plastic in Pacific is changing ocean habitats, study shows

In the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, plastic has increased by 100 times over in past 40 years. Some sea creatures are now laying their eggs on plastic.

In a part of the ocean known as the North Pacific Gyre, human-produced plastic has increased 100-fold over the past 40 years, according to a new study. This is the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is not an actual floating island of garbage, but which is filled with floating bits of plastic, often fingernail-sized, mostly from the U.S. west coast and from the east coast of Asia. The new study led by graduate student researcher Miriam Goldstein at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego indicates that the plastic in this part of the ocean has provided new habitats for some marine creatures, which in turn can be expected to create a subtle shift in the ocean food web. The study was published May 9, 2012 in an online issue of the journal Biology Letters.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is located within the North Pacific Gyre, one of five major ocean gyres on Earth. In the video at the bottom of this post, Miriam Goldstein talks about why these ocean gyres exist, and how plastic gets into them. Image Credit: Fangz via Wikimedia Commons

Scripps Institution of Oceanography research ship New Horizon. Miriam Goldstein and colleagues sailed aboard this ship to study plastics in the North Pacific Gyre. Image Credit: Scripps

Which sea creatures are being affected? One is the marine insect Halobates sericeus, which are sea skaters or water striders. They are related to the water skaters you might have seen on the surfaces of fresh-water ponds.

Miriam Goldstein of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Image credit: Chang Shu

Marine sea skaters live on the ocean surface. They lay their eggs on floating objects such as seashells, seabird feathers, tar lumps and pumice … and now plastic garbage, according to Goldstein’s study.

The result is that the North Pacific Gyre now has sea skater eggs in greater density than before. It’s the first increase known among marine invertebrates (animal without backbones) in the open ocean. More sea skaters might have consequences for animals across the marine food web, such as crabs that prey on sea skaters and their eggs, and such as the animals that eat the crabs, and so on.

That’s because, here on Earth, everything is connected to everything else. We captured some video with Miriam Goldstein a couple of years ago, which you can see here:

Goldstein said in a press statement released May 9, 2012:

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. Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better.

Bottom line: Plastic in the part of the ocean known as the North Pacific Gyre has increased 100-fold over the past 40 years and is providing a new habitat for sea creatures, according to a study led by Miriam Goldstein and published in Biology Letters on May 9. This change can be expected to affect the ocean food web.

Read more from Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Miriam Goldstein on the North Pacific Garbage Patch

Deborah Byrd

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