The eastern section of the spiraling mass, between Hawaii and California, is estimated to be around twice the size of Texas (some estimates peg the entire mass at twice the size of the continental United States), and is having ecosystem-wide impacts, according to a recent studypublished in Biology Letters.
Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and the lead author of the study, told Truthout that by adding this amount of plastic to the oceans, humans could be causing large-scale change to the ocean’s ecological system.
“We found eggs on the pieces of plastic, and these were sea skater [insect] eggs,” Goldstein said. “Sea skaters naturally occur in the gyre and are known to lay their eggs on floating objects. So we found that the amount of eggs being laid had increased with the amount of plastic.”
Goldstein says that, although the study’s findings clearly raise immediate concerns, the most serious consequences may be ones we can’t yet foresee. “Our work shows there could be potential effects to the ocean ecosystem that we can’t expect or predict,” she said. “There are five subtropical gyres, one in each ocean basin, and they are natural currents. They are vast areas of the oceans; together they comprise the majority of the area of the oceans. So altering them on a large scale could have unexpected results on all kinds of things.”
The study shows how an increase in pollution, in this case an immense amount of plastic, may have dire consequences for animals across the entire marine food web.
This Scripps study follows a report by colleagues at the institution that showed that 9 percent of the fish collected during the trip to study the gyre had plastic waste in their stomachs.
Published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, that study estimated that fish at intermediate ocean depths in the North Pacific Ocean could be ingesting plastic at the staggering rate of 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences, told Truthout he finds plastic on every beach he visits across the globe, and added, “Probably every sea turtle on the planet interacts with plastic at some point in its life.”
Jo Royle, a UK-based trans-ocean skipper and ocean advocate, has seen the same.
“For 13 years I’ve been crossing oceans,” she told Truthout. “I’ve seen plastic on the coastline of Antarctica, and over the years we’ve noticed plastic becoming more of an issue on remote islands. Over the last seven years we’ve seen it increase dramatically. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been on a beach and not seen plastic.”
Biological oceanographer Dr. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, with the National Oceanography Centre at Britain’s University of Southampton, is concerned that ocean pollution isn’t viewed as a pressing issue – despite the fact that it is accelerating.
“Marine pollution is a big issue,” she told Truthout. “There is this idea that oceans have unlimited inertia, but nanoparticles of plastic getting into marine animals and the food chain are affecting fish fertility rates, and this affects food security and coastal populations. Pollution is having a huge impact on the oceans, and is urgent and needs to be dealt with.”
Nichols concurs, adding that, when it comes to the oceans, we are now seeing the cautionary predictions of previous decades coming true.
“From a climate change/fisheries/pollution/habitat destruction point of view, our nightmare is here; it’s the world we live in,” Nichols said. “You see evidence of the impact of climate change on the oceans everywhere now. The collapsing fisheries, the changes in the Arctic and the hardship communities that live there are having to face, the frequency and intensity of storms – everything we imagined 30 to 40 years ago when the environmental movement was born, we’re dealing with those now…. The toxins in our bodies, food web, and in the marine mammals, it’s all there.”
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