Recent research found that some species manage to survive and thrive on one of the five great plastic islands in the world / Ocean Voyages Institute 2020 Gyre Expedition.
After the devastating 2011 tsunami that hit the coast of Tohoku, Japan, which left more than 15,000 people dead as well as another 6,000 injured, some scientists began to notice a particular phenomenon: about 300 species of coastal animals had used remains of objects destroyed by the tsunami to cross the Pacific. However, sightings from this process were difficult to make.
For this reason, Linsey Haram, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, teamed up with Ocean Voyages Institute —a nonprofit that collects plastic pollution from sailing expeditions — and with Jan Hafner and Nikolai Maximenko, two oceanographers from the University of Hawaii. The objective? Study the patch of garbage that is located in the North Pacific subtropical gyre between California and Hawaii and that contains more than 79,000 metric tons of floating plastic.
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Of the five ocean plastic gyres (areas where surface currents drive plastic pollution from shores to regions where spinning currents trap floating objects that accumulate over time), the one chosen by Haram and her team is the one with the greatest Contamination Contains. While Hafner and Maximenko developed models that would allow them to predict where the plastic was most likely to accumulate, Ocean Voyages Institute lent its low carbon footprint vessels to reach these points.
During the first year of the pandemic, Mary Crowley, founder of the Ocean Voyages Institute, together with the team of this organization collected 103 tons of plastics in this region and sent some samples to the SERC. Already in the laboratories, Haram and his collaborators discovered that several coastal species, including sea anemones and amphipods (crustaceans that look like shrimp), survived and thrived on the marine plastic that had accumulated.
“The problems of plastic go beyond mere ingestion and entanglement. It is creating opportunities for the biogeography of coastal species to be vastly expanded beyond what we previously thought possible, ”said Haram, lead author of the paper that presented the findings in the journal. Nature.
Greg Ruíz, principal scientist at SERC, highlighted the importance of these results. “The open ocean has not been habitable for coastal organisms until now, partly due to habitat limitation – there was no plastic there in the past – and partly, we thought , because it was a food desert ”. In other words, the patches of plastic garbage that form in the ocean are being used by animals and plants as habitats.
However, there is still very little knowledge about the so-called neo-pelagic communities (neo means new and pelagic refers to the open ocean). Despite this, the experiences after the 2011 tsunami in Japan indicate that these communities could represent a threat if invasive species manage to reach coasts and territories where they have never lived and whose effects can be negative.