Scientists have discovered marine animals living in plastic debris in the open water area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Many of these creatures are coastal species, which lived miles away from their usual habitat, in an area between the coast of California (USA) and Hawaii.
Plants and animals, including anemones, small sea insects, mollusks and crabs are found in 90% of the plastic pieces.
Scientists are concerned that the plastic is helping to transport invasive species.
The study examined plastic items over two inches in diameter collected from a vortex – an area where circulating currents cause debris to accumulate – in the Pacific Ocean.
“Plastic is more durable than a lot of natural debris that you’re used to seeing in the open sea. They create a much more permanent habitat in this area,” said lead researcher Lynsey Harram, who led the work at the Smithsonian Center for Environmental Research.
Haram has worked with the Ocean Voyages Institute, a nongovernmental organization that collects polluted plastics on marine expeditions, and with oceanographers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
More than half of the items examined contain species commonly found in coastal areas. Photo: Smithsonian, BBC
In the world there are at least five plastic-infested eddies. It is believed that the eastern Pacific Ocean contains the largest amount of plastic – about 79,000 tons in an area of u200bu200bmore than 1.6 square kilometers.
Haram said: “All kinds of things end there.” “It’s not a plastic island, but there’s definitely a lot of plastic stuck in there.”
Much of this is microplastic – it’s very hard to see with the naked eye. But there are also larger items, including abandoned fishing nets, buoys and even boats that have been floating in the spin since the tsunami in Japan in 2011.
The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Nature Communications, began the investigation by analyzing the devastating tsunami.
The disaster dumped tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, and hundreds of coastal Japanese species were seen alive in the elements that made their way to the Pacific coasts of North America and the Hawaiian Islands.
“We want to know how plastic can be a vehicle for invasive species,” Haram told BBC News.
The survey began by analyzing the impact of the 2011 tsunami in Japan – Image: Reuters via BBC
Some of the organisms the researchers found in the plastic were open sea species — organisms that survived crossing floating plastic. But the most impressive result, says Haram, was the diversity of coastal species in the plastic.
“More than half of the items have coastal species,” she said. “This raises a lot of questions about what it means to be a coastal species.”
Scientists say the discovery highlights the “unintended consequences” of plastic pollution – a problem that is only set to get worse.
A previous study estimated that 25 billion tons of plastic waste will be generated by 2050.
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