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Ecosystem Found in Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Researchers find that small sea creatures exist in equal number with pieces of plastic in parts of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Ecosystem Found in Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Image by Ben Lecomte

In 2019, the French swimmer Benoit Lecomte swam over 300 nautical miles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution. As he swam, he was often surprised to find that he wasn’t alone, reports The New York Times. "Every time I saw plastic debris floating, there was life all around it," Mr. Lecomte said.

According to The Times, the patch was less a garbage island than a garbage soup of plastic bottles, fishing nets, tires and toothbrushes. And floating at its surface were blue dragon nudibranchs, Portuguese man-o-wars, and other small surface-dwelling animals, which are collectively known as neuston.

The Ocean’s Biggest Garbage Pile Is Full of Floating Life (The New York Times)

Excerpt from The New York Times: Scientists aboard the ship supporting Mr. Lecomte’s swim systematically sampled the patch’s surface waters. The team found that there were much higher concentrations of neuston within the patch than outside it. In some parts of the patch, there were nearly as many neuston as pieces of plastic. "The density was really staggering. To see them in that concentration was like, wow," said Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study.
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NBC News writes that scientists documented more than 40 coastal species clinging to plastic trash, including mussels, barnacles and shrimp-like amphipods. Coastal marine species carried out to sea on debris are not only surviving, they’re colonizing the high seas and making new communities on the floating plastic detritus that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

On the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, scientists find a surprise: Coastal life (NBC News)

Excerpt from NBC News: Scientists, writing in the journal Nature Communications, report coastal plants and animals are sustaining themselves and even reproducing in the patch, an accumulation of trash stuck in ocean currents that’s estimated to be about twice the size of Texas. Researchers were shocked to find that plastic debris now is allowing plants and animals to take up residence in the middle of nowhere and that the open ocean provides enough food to sustain them.
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Many of Lecomte’s findings were captured and examined by researchers from multiple universities around the world in a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed paper published Friday, and co-author Rebecca Helm of the University of North Carolina posted a lengthy tweet thread explaining the study in detail, according to Futurism.

Hooray! The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Has Become a Thriving Ecosystem, Scientists Say (Futurism)

Excerpt from Futurism: Given the number of fish and animals living in the patch, Helm said on Twitter that cleaning it with physical nets and plastic removal isn’t actually such a good idea. Instead, she says we should focus on stopping plastic pollution at the source so the patch doesn’t get any bigger. While cleaning up plastic that’s causing the microplastics found in nearly every part of the human body and even newborns, dipping nets into the water to catch garbage also removes the animals living there.
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