Huge plastic islands, also known as garbage swirls, are floating in the world’s oceans: tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste, which in the North Pacific Ocean, for example, is carried in circles for years by large ocean currents until it drifts ashore or sinks into the depths seas. The work of Lynsey Harram of the Smithsonian Center for Environmental Research in Edgewater and her team appears at Nature Communications.That these wrecks are not only colonized by animals, but open up entirely new habitats for actual coastal dwellers.
Scientists first became aware of this phenomenon in 2011, after a powerful earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, in which huge amounts of waste were dredged into the sea, some of which landed on the American West Coast years later. More than 300 species from the eastern side of the Pacific have made their way to the other side of the ocean. So the staff at Haram took a closer look at the Pacific garbage vortex.
I worked with the Ocean Voyages Institute, which set itself a goal of catching some trash from the sea and recycling or disposing of it on land. During one of the trips, the crew collected 103 tons of garbage, some of which went to the Pyramid & Co. for analysis. The group identified and counted the animals that colonized the waste. In doing so, they came across many species of Hydrozoa, anemones and amphipods, which actually occur near the coast – although these were not just isolated cases, but also colonies that were able to reproduce. So the animals weren’t just random victims; They actively occupied a new homeland.
“The open ocean was previously uninhabitable for coastal organisms,” says Greg Ruiz of the Marine Invasions Laboratory, “partly because of habitat constraints—there was no plastic there—and partly, we thought, because it was a food desert.” It is not the case, however, it is not yet known why. Garbage may continue to drift through more biologically productive areas. Or plastics act as artificial corals, which in turn create food sources or attract suitable organisms.
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