The world’s biggest garbage dump isn’t in China or New York City. It’s in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The direct result of our addiction to “disposable” plastic containers and our refusal to reduce, reuse, recycle, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is an island of floating garbage some estimate to be the size of Texas.
Since petroleum-based plastics can take decades or even centuries to degrade, they get caught in the vortex of ocean currents that converge in the North Pacific. Unfortunately, this make-shift island causes real problems for members of the ocean ecosystem, both above and below the surface.
In addition to killing birds and fish who try to eat it, new research suggests that the floating trash is giving a certain variety of marine insect an ideal place to breed out on the open ocean, which could have a big impact on the natural environment. A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
“Sea skaters” or “water striders”—relatives of pond water skaters—inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Naturally existing surfaces for their eggs include, for example: seashells, seabird feathers, tar lumps and pumice. In the new study researchers found that sea skaters have exploited the influx of plastic garbage as new surfaces for their eggs. This has led to a rise in the insect’s egg densities in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.
Researchers say that the increase in ocean trash, documented for the first time in a marine invertebrate in the open ocean, may have severe consequences for animals across the marine food web. Although this might seem like good news for the skater’s main predator, crabs, it could spell disaster for its prey, including tiny animals like zooplankton and fish eggs.
“We’re seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic…We’re concerned that this might change the flow of energy in this ecosystem, potentially favoring the low-biodiversity rafting community at the expense of the high-biodiversity water column community,” said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, lead author of the study and chief scientist of SEAPLEX, a UC Ship Funds-supported voyage.
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