Life in plastic

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Denis Riek

In the North Pacific off the coast of California, ocean currents and winds concentrate humanity’s detritus in a plastic soup around six times the size of New Zealand. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In 2019, a French long-distance swimmer named Benoît Lecomte embarked on an 80-day, 300-nautical-mile swim through the patch. While he mostly ploughed through suspended specks of microplastic, Lecomte also encountered items such as toothbrushes, bottles and fishing nets littering the sea surface.

We now suspect life was here well before the plastic arrived: new research suggests that tiny surface-floating organisms such as jelly-like blue buttons, violet sea snails and by-the-wind sailors have long been caught up in the same currents and winds that aggregate the rubbish. Known to wash up on New Zealand beaches, these creatures are called the ‘blue fleet’.

Samples collected by Lecomte’s support team revealed that three blue fleet species were more abundant inside the patch than outside. They also found evidence the creatures are reproducing, which suggests the area may play an important role in their life cycles—even though the ecosystem is crowded with man-made obstacles.

In another recent study, a different research team identified 484 species of marine invertebrates living—and breeding—on bits of plastic rubbish fished out of the patch in 2018 and 2019. Eighty per cent of the species identified—including crustaceans and sea anemones—usually live in coastal habitats, but had survived the journey, over thousands of miles, to the patch. The researchers suggest this constitutes a new ecological community.

Both studies have implications for ocean clean-up efforts, which could disturb surface-dwelling fauna like the blue fleet. For example, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation deploys giant nets to scoop up plastic—and presumably ocean creatures, too.

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