Plastic trash altering ocean habitats, study shows


A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

In 2009 an ambitious group of graduate students led the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the Ocean Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps New Horizon. During the voyage the researchers, who concentrated their studies a thousand miles west of California, documented an alarming amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of .

At the time the researchers didn't have a clear idea of how such trash might be impacting the , but a new study published in the May 9 online issue of the journal Biology Letters reveals that in the area popularly known as the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" has increased by 100 times over in the past 40 years, leading to changes in the of animals such as the marine insect Halobates sericeus. These "sea skaters" or "water striders"—relatives of pond water skaters—inhabit water surfaces and lay their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Naturally existing surfaces for their eggs include, for example: seashells, seabird feathers, tar lumps and pumice. In the new study researchers found that sea skaters have exploited the influx of plastic garbage as new surfaces for their eggs. This has led to a rise in the insect's egg densities in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

Such an increase, documented for the first time in a marine invertebrate (animal without a backbone) in the open ocean, may have consequences for animals across the marine food web, such as crabs that prey on sea skaters and their eggs.

"This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it's having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate," said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein, lead author of the study and chief scientist of SEAPLEX, a UC Ship Funds-supported voyage. "We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic."

The new study follows a report published last year by Scripps researchers in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series showing that nine percent of the fish collected during SEAPLEX contained plastic waste in their stomachs. That study estimated that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific Ocean ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.

Plastic trash altering ocean habitats,  study shows
Examples of a not-yet-hatched sea skater (Halobates sericeus) egg (top), about the size of a grain of rice, and a hatched egg (bottom). Photo credit: Miriam Goldstein, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

The Goldstein et al. study compared changes in small plastic abundance between 1972-1987 and 1999-2010 by using historical samples from the Scripps Pelagic Invertebrate Collection and data from SEAPLEX, a NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer cruise in 2010, information from the Algalita Marine Research Foundation as well as various published papers.

In April, researchers with the Instituto Oceanográfico in Brazil published a report that eggs of Halobates micans, another species of sea skater, were found on many plastic bits in the South Atlantic off Brazil.

"Plastic only became widespread in late '40s and early '50s, but now everyone uses it and over a 40-year range we've seen a dramatic increase in ocean plastic," said Goldstein. "Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the so hopefully in the future we can do better."

Explore further

Scientists find 'great Pacific Ocean garbage patch'

Journal information: Marine Ecology Progress Series

Citation: Plastic trash altering ocean habitats, study shows (2012, May 8) retrieved 22 August 2019 from
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May 08, 2012
If it was only that simple Johnboy. Its an environmental disaster of a scale that blows the mind. An area the size of Texas is filled with floating trash and microscopic plastic beads. It's in whales, dolphins and fish. Have you grilled any ocean perch lately; noticed that yummy burnt plastic smell. Well maybe not that bad, but pretty gross to think about it in the food chain.

May 08, 2012
"This we know: the earth does not belong to man: man belongs to the earth... All things are connected like the blood which unites one family...Whatever befalls the earth, befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself." - Chief Seattle in a letter to U.S President Franklin Pierce in 1855.

May 08, 2012
We should find a way to collect all of the plastic, or a large portion of it. Then the plastic could be disposed of how we normally do, by melting it down and using it to make more stuff...which then blows into the ocean.

May 08, 2012
We should find a way to collect all of the plastic, or a large portion of it. Then the plastic could be disposed of how we normally do, by melting it down and using it to make more stuff...which then blows into the ocean.

Maybe create an algae that feeds on PCB's than use that algae in an ocean based farm and use that algae for fuel or creating plastics again..

May 09, 2012
The fish seem pretty good at collecting the trash. Maybe we can develop a plastic from algae that doubles as fish food.

May 09, 2012
I was joking but it seems I'm not the first person to think of this.
"If such plastics became prevalent on a large scale, they could theoretically present something of an ecological holy grail, with a gyre full of bioplastic representing something closer to fish food than deathtrap."


May 09, 2012
Instead of using the military to make even a bigger mess, lets use them to clean up the land and seas. They have added much to the pollution problem.

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