What Scientists Learned from 60 Years of Data on Ocean Plastics

Scientists have released the results of a six-decades long study in which data initially intended to capture information on plankton helped them chart the rise of oceans plastics.

Publishing in the journal “Nature Communications“, the researcher team Thompson et al looked at the data produced by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Survey initiative. CPRs are devices that can be towed by large ships and sample plankton throughout the North Atlantic and nearby seas.

CPR surveys have recorded pelagic plankton—plankton in the pelagic open ocean zone—since as far back as 1931. We might ask, “Why do this?” Well, it’s because plankton tend to be a good measure for how well our oceans are doing, and they also they give us a morsel of information on how whale populations and other marine life that rely on them might be doing.

However, because the CPR fleet has been trawling our waters for so long, it has also collected a variety of other data, including what else has crossed its path and gotten tangled in its mesh besides plankton. For this reason, the historical data provides a unique way of looking at the oceans’ plastics problem.

“We search through [those logs] and what we realised was that we had some really early, historic entanglement cases of plastics…” Researcher Dr Clare Ostle, of Plymouth’s Marine Biological Association, tells the BBC. “We can build a time series from that – so we can actually see the increase in larger plastic entanglements.”

Looking at this data, the researchers found some really interesting trends.

For one thing, the first plastic grocery bag that the CPR caught dates back to 1965 and occurred off the coast of Ireland. This isn’t entirely surprising, given that the 1960-1970 period saw the first major boom of plastics. However, this wasn’t the earliest incident.

The records highlight a number of other early plastic encounters, including an incident in 1957 where a CPR encountered a plastic fishing twine. Plastic from fishing lines and discarded nets proved to be by far the most abundant source of microplastics the CPR encountered. Over half of the “disruption” incidents to the CPRs trawling were from discarded fishing lines and nets.

More broadly, the researchers saw evidence of microplastics becoming more and more prevalent in our oceans by observing increasing entanglement or disruption events. The researchers found that from the 50s to the 70s, below one percent of CPR tows were disrupted due to entanglements with plastics. However, by the 90s that increased to two percent.

Since that time the level has grown alarmingly fast and now sits between three and four percent. Given that estimates suggest there may be as much as 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste in the world, with a significant proportion in our seas, this isn’t so shocking. However, it does demonstrate how rapidly this boom has happened and how the ubiquity of plastics in modern manufacturing makes getting it under control extremely difficult.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in these figures however. Remember the plastic bag? Well, the researchers found that the number of plastic bag-related entanglements has dwindled in recent years. While the data can’t give us a precise reason for this, it may be that global initiatives to reduce plastic waste could be ensuring that fewer bags are finding their way into our oceans.

Dr. Ostle does highlight that the CPR only gives us a narrow snapshot of our seas, as it only operates at a depth of up to seven meters. That means the plastics it encounters are relatively close to the surface and that the CPR data can’t tell us about plastics below that level.

Regardless, this study underscores the need to act on plastics pollution and to ensure that it does not continue to infiltrate our seas. We do have the tools to help this at the consumer level by choosing renewable materials over plastics, but it is up to manufacturers and governments to stop paying lip-service to this problem by relying on the consumer and actually take action to drive down the plastics that are ensnaring our oceans.

Take Action

Plastic pollution is a threat to marine life worldwide. Join over 220,000 Care2 members and sign and share the petition demanding that Parliament #banthebag.

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Photo credit: Getty Images.


Vincent T
William T25 days ago

thank you for sharing

Carla G
Frances G28 days ago


Mark Donner
Mark Donnerabout a month ago

In places like Florida they don't give a crap. Everywhere you shop they hand out plastic bags like candy. Apathetic greedy loser state.

Gino C
Gino Cabout a month ago


Leo C
Leo Custerabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!

Michael F
Michael Friedmannabout a month ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

Pam Bruce
Pam Bruceabout a month ago

No only are there dumped nets in the ocean but also dumped oil. Lots of wildlife are getting covered by this dumped oil. The oceans are not a dump. Quit treating it as such.

Terri S
Terri Sabout a month ago

Sad world!!

Danuta W
Danuta Wabout a month ago

thanks for sharing

Barbara S
Barbara Sabout a month ago