The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a collection of marine debris currently floating in the North Pacific Ocean, is still rapidly growing. With the help of rotating currents called gyres, more and more trash is being constantly pulled into the trash vortex.
In an article published in the Nature journal, researchers have found that multiple marine species like barnacles, starfish, and some crustaceans are living among the trash vortex. Even though they are surrounded by garbage, the species found within the patch seem to be thriving even with the apparent lack of proper food and shelter.
One of the lead researchers of the article, Linsey Haram, said that “It’s [Great Pacific Garbage Patch] creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.”
Linsey is an ecologist in the Marine Invasions Research Lab at SERC, and she studies animals and seaweed that live on plastics that are floating in the open Pacific Ocean. She mentioned in an interview that studying these issues is important because it gives a lot of clues about how plastic pollution is negatively impacting the ocean ecosystems. The trash vortex consists mostly of plastic fragments and other microplastics which may not be visible but are still extremely toxic and dangerous.
“The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms until now,” said Gregory Ruiz, co-author of the published article. Although the trash vortex consists mostly of plastics, researchers suspect that the species that have made the Garbage Patch their home are finding food because the plastic itself acts like a reef, attracting more food sources. So it seems that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is proving to have made its own ecosystem. Ruiz said, “It’s almost like a new island has emerged.”
Despite numerous species finding a new home in the Garbage Patch, the researchers wrote in their article that the rafting events caused by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch could change the ocean ecosystem and change invasion dynamics on a global scale. As the vortex circles the Pacific Ocean, garbage from California will travel all the way to Japan and will circle back years later. With the Garbage Patch hosting numerous species, it poses possible threats to local flora and fauna in areas around the Pacific Ocean.
In a highlight from The Smithsonian, Linsey Haram said, “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters. They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.” This long-overlooked side effect of plastic pollution, the authors said, could soon transform life on land and in the sea.
Have a look at how research is done on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the video below.