Plastic garbage in the ocean has increased 100-fold in the past 40 years and could have ecosystem-wide impacts, according to a study released Tuesday.
Scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography looked at the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch,’ and found an "alarming amount" of plastic trash, much in small bits.
The plastic trash was leading to an increase in "sea skaters," a marine insect, eggs because the insects were using the increased plastic floating matter as to lay their eggs on. This increase may have widespread impacts across the marine food web.
"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."
"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," added Goldstein. "Historically we have not been very good at stopping plastic from getting into the ocean so hopefully in the future we can do better."
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BBC News: Big rise in North Pacific plastic waste
Ms Goldstein and colleagues gathered their information on the abundance of micro-plastic during the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (Seaplex) off California in 2009. They then compared their data with those from other scientific cruises, including archived records stretching back to the early 1970s.
Plastic waste in the North Pacific is an ongoing concern.
The natural circulation of water - the North Pacific Gyre - tends to retain the debris in reasonably discrete, long-lived collections, which have popularly become known as "garbage patches". In the north-eastern Pacific, one of these concentrations is seen in waters between Hawaii and California.
This Scripps study follows another report by colleagues at the institution that showed 9% of the fish collected during the same Seaplex voyage had plastic waste in their stomachs.
That investigation, published in Marine Ecology Progress Series, estimated the fish at intermediate ocean depths in the North Pacific Ocean could be ingesting plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tonnes per year.
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In 2009 The Guardian published a photo essay, "The Pacific's plastic shame" highlighting humanity's plastic addiction effects on albatross chicks
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Capt. Charles Moore on the seas of plastic
Capt. Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation first discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- an endless floating waste of plastic trash. Now he's drawing attention to the growing, choking problem of plastic debris in our seas.
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“Every time I stick my nose in the water, I am shocked. I see less and less fish and more and more garbage,” said Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary marine ecologist Jacques Cousteau, who has spent four decades making documentaries and educating people about the oceans.
On trips to the remote and uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Cousteau found miles and miles of plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, television tubes, spray cans, broken toys, and thousands of other pieces of plastic on the beaches and thousands of tonnes of derelict fishing nets in the reefs.
“We are using the oceans as a universal sewer,” he told some 440 participants from the plastics manufacturing, food and beverage sectors, environmental organisations, scientists and policy-makers from over 35 countries at the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, which ended Mar. 25.
Humanity is risking its own health and survival in treating the oceans this way, Cousteau said. The oceans are the source of life on our planet.