Sea creatures and plants commonly found in coastal areas have found new ways to survive on the high seas by colonizing plastic pollution, scientists say.
A new study, published Thursday in the journal Nature Communications, found that coastal marine species inhabited floating garbage after circling the subtropical North Pacific gyre, also known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” at hundreds of kilometers offshore.
“The problems with plastic go beyond ingestion and entanglement,” Linsey Haram, lead author of the article and member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a press release. “This creates opportunities for the biogeography of coastal species to extend considerably beyond what we previously thought possible.”
Plastic eddies form when currents carry plastic pollution from shorelines to regions where rotating currents trap floating objects in place and they can build up over time. There are at least five plastic infested gyres in the world. The North Pacific Subtropical Whirlpool, located between California and Hawaii, has the most floating plastic with about 79 million kilograms floating in an area of ââover 1.5 million square kilometers.
Until now, confirmed sightings of coastal species on plastic in the high seas have been rare. Scientists began to suspect that these species could use plastic to survive in the ocean for long periods after the 2011 tsunami in Japan when they discovered that nearly 300 species had rafted across the Pacific on debris at the over the course of several years.
“The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms so far,” said Greg Ruiz, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and co-author of the study. “Partly because of the habitat limitation – there was no plastic there in the past – and part, we thought, because it was a food desert.”
Plastic provides habitat, but Ruiz says scientists are still trying to figure out that species find food, such as if they drift to hot spots or if plastic acts like a reef and attracts sources of nutrition.
Now that they know coastal species can exist far out in the ocean, scientists are wondering how their presence could impact an environment already inhabited by sea creatures that also use plastic as habitat.
âCoastal species are in direct competition with these ocean rafters,â Haram said. “They compete for space. They compete for resources. These interactions are very poorly understood.”
The find also raises questions about the possibility of coastal species invading areas where they are alien. This has already been seen with the debris from the 2011 tsunami that transported organisms from Japan to North America.
âThese other coasts are not just urban centers,â Ruiz said. “This opportunity extends to more remote areas, protected areas, Hawaiian Islands, national parks, marine protected areas.”
The study authors say they still don’t know how common these oceanic communities of coastal species are, whether they can continue to persist, or whether they exist outside of the subtropical gyre of the North Pacific. But with the world’s growing reliance on plastic and more frequent storms due to climate change, they expect more plastic to be dumped into the sea and colonies of coastal species in the sea. ocean are developing.