Marine biodiversity observed on the great pacific garbage patch

Social IssuesEnvironment

  • Author David Steven Chalmers
  • Published June 29, 2024
  • Word count 2,234

Introduction

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest concerns in the 21st century especially in marine environments where it can choke oceanic animals as well as microplastics building up in marine food chains. Plastic waste being dumped into the ocean as well as being pulled into the oceans due to wind currants has even led to artificial land masses being formed. The largest of these being the great pacific garbage patch, locally known as “garbage island” these garbage patches are a cause for concern due to the amount of damage they could do to the surrounding ecosystem such as fish and birds becoming trapped in the immense plastic mass. In recent years studies have shown that marine organisms have began living on these garbage patches. This creates further problems and complications for various concerned bodies who wish to deal with these patches. The purpose of this article is to examine the currant studies looking at these colonies of organisms living on these great masses of plastic and problems they may cause for the wider ecosystems.

Background

Obligate neuston refers to marine surface-dwelling organisms, these animals form a critical ecological link between diverse ecosystems. These neustons include various species of cnidarians, barnacles, molluscs copepods and algae. These taxa make up a nexus of various food webs that include diverse seabirds, fish and turtles making these animals essential for the survival of numerous species. Even though these neustons are globally distributed only the sargasso sea has high concentrations of neustonic life making the sea a key biodiversity hotspot. Supported by these neuston the sargasso sea is key to the ecology of the north Atlantic (Chong. F et al, 2022). Gyres refers to the currant systems of the ocean, they include various surface movements in global oceans. Plastic forms the basis for what these gyres can bring together. As well as substrate floating down drains, rivers, beaches and in some instances, material intentionally dumped off ships. The great pacific garbage patch first got public attention around 1997 after it was discovered by Charles Moore. Since then, the Algalita foundation was founded in 1999 with the purpose of studying the artificial land mass. The garbage patch contains refuse from Asia north/ south America, out of these the main 6 countries who contribute to the patch are thought to be China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Shri Lanka and Thailand. This phenomenon has occurred before with more natural wastes such as wood cloth and detritus however these garbage patches will eventually break down into carbon dioxide and water through biodegradation. Marine life can get caught in plastic structures such as ring pulls and discarded nets suffocating them (Pillai. A, 2021).

An immense floating plastic habitat in the open ocean and an unprecedented establishment of coastal species in the high seas. This kind of community is referred to as a nonpelagic community. Though this ocean rafting is nothing new, natural rafts transport animals, seeds and seaweeds across the ocean. During the Anthropocene globalisation led to many biogeographic barriers imposed on oceans and continents to be rendered obsolete. Including socially, economically and ecologically. This is mostly due to plastic pollution on a global scale leading to plastic rafts being generated allowing for the opportunity for coastal species to transit ocean basins and colonise the open ocean. A mixture of open ocean currants and wind causes invertebrates to get stranded on long lasting plastic rafts. Leading to the development of oceanic communities on these rafts (Harem. E. L, et al, 2021). The great pacific garbage patch contains around 79,000 tons of plastic waste at around 2021, as such there have been numerous proposed ideas to deal with the patch. However so far nothing has really been done and now life on the patch means many of these ideas can’t be done (Feehly. C, 2021). The great pacific garbage patch is thought to be twice the size of Texas as of 2022 which is concerning to think about. Many of the organisms found on the garbage patch are thought to play a vital role in oceanic ecosystems meaning their presence on the patch may deprive their traditional habitats may be deprived of vital components (Rosane. O, 2022). There are thought to be 5 major patches in the ocean caused by trash being caught in global wind patterns the largest of these is the great pacific garbage patch (Haro. A, 2023).

Organisms found on the garbage patch

An 80-day study was conducted to see if any life could be supported on these garbage islands, the study found large communities of several species of invertebrates including blue button jellies, by the wind sailors and violet snails. The highest concentrations of these species were found in the highest concentrations of plastic debris. Though these species are thought to be moved around easily by wind currants and tides. This could lead to vertebrates like sea birds and sea turtles who prey on these animals being caught on these islands. It also presents the question if these islands can be ethically be removed if there are organisms living on it (Haro. A, 2023). The garbage patch is currently creating a floating ecosystem for various species that would not under normal circumstances be able to survive in the open ocean allowing for new evolutionary potential. Unlike organic debris which can decompose and sink within months, plastic debris can float on oceans for long periods to time giving animals to survive and reproduce on the open ocean for years leading to stable open ocean communities. Its hard to know what is exactly going on these vast rafts in terms of feeding reproduction and how different species are able to compete for space and resources (Kottasova. I, 2023). Blue sea dragons have been seen on the great pacific garbage patch; they are known for using stinging cells commandeered from Portuguese man o war jelly fish (Their prey animal) as part of their defence. Due to the ecosystem which is formed on the garbage patch cleaning up the patch with plastic nets may not be a viable idea and it may be better to stop plastic pollution at its source ensuring it doesn’t get any bigger. Typical plastic cleanup in the ocean leads to Sealife getting trudged up causing further damage to marine ecosystems. An article on futurism pitches the idea the garbage patch may one day become like the Galapagos islands, containing species who have evolved to live in its unique conditions (Hood. L. L, 2022).

Other found organisms include crabs, anemones and seaweed have now started adapted to surviving on floating rafts on these plastic rafts. This shows that the great pacific garbage patch has started to become an ecosystem ferrying hundreds of species miles from their normal coastal range to the open ocean. Other species are barnacles, brittle stars and isopods living among the garbage patch between the California coastline and Hawaii. They are thriving on these garbage patches despite the harsh conditions, minimal shelter and food (Wetzel. C, 2021). New mixes of coastal species found in the great pacific garbage patch may increase the odds of biological invasions for nearby ecosystems. It has long been known animals such as worms, crustaceans and molluscs can survive on plastic debris, some of these animals have crossed the Pacific Ocean on plastic rafts such as after the tsunami in Japan in 2011. A paper published in 2023 shows some species are not only surviving on plastic structures on the open ocean but are also reproducing. Within 79000 metric tons of plastic recovered from the garbage patch contained 484 invertebrates from a wide range of species. many of whom were not commonly found on the coastline of the western pacific including:

• Moss animals/ bryozoans

• Jellyfish

• Sponges

• Worms

Nearly all this debris houses pelagic or open ocean species any may have been there for many years as well as coastal and open ocean species living side by side. These unnatural communities may reduce more traditional open ocean species living on natural debris such as through competition for space, resources or could even by eaten by these neo pelagic species. it is unknown if these occurrences are happening in other oceans or just the pacific, however these moving communities reproducing will inevitably spread to other areas (Bartels. M, 2023). A big concern is these organisms’ eating plastic and then getting eaten by larger marine organisms leading to more plastic being brought further into the food web (Rosane. O, 2022).

Certain studies show higher concentrations of floating life inside the great pacific garbage patch than on its surface, potentially due to higher potential food sources available on the inside (Chong. F, et al, 2022). Most of the organisms on these patches are invertebrates that attach themselves to oceanic substrates including the film that forms o the ocean surface. These organisms also have the potential to disrupt oceanic ecosystems affecting the flow of potentially limited resources. This can however be hard to predict due to how poor many of these interactions are understood. These rafts can also be responsible for seeding oceanic plants and assisting in the movement of these species between landmasses. Other species that can temporarily end up on these patches are marine iguanas from south America which end up being moved to the Galapagos. Also, while natural rafts are biodegradable the garbage patches are pretty much permanent and may lead to more species colonising areas, they are not native to. This can lead to unpredictable paradigm shifts as well as potentially dangerous invasive species using the garbage patch as a stepping stone (Feehly. C, 2021).

Conclusions

From what has been shown in research conducted in the great pacific garbage patch in can be seen that large invertebrate communities are now developing. Despite the harsh and potentially toxic environment these animals have found themselves on they seem to not only be surviving but also reproducing. This means these communities could begin increasing over time and lead to organisms evolving the live in plastic filled environments. This is concerning as if this continues it could make it difficult to get rid of these plastic islands without wiping out thousands of marine organisms. If nothing is done this could lead to the great pacific garbage patch could continue expanding in size completely unchecked leading to further ecological damage. Another concern is that the use of plastic rafts similar to the garbage patch may enable the establishment of invasive species across stretches of the ocean due to plastic not degrading for long periods of times. Invasive species are one of the largest environmental concerns due to how unpredictable the consequences can be. And new avenues for invasive species can lead to even more unforeseen consequences.

These large plastic patches can massively disrupt global marine food webs due to prey species populations being diverted by from their natural habitat. This can lead to numerous species having a harder time getting food and reducing their survival chances. Predators that can feed on the species could potentially also consume microplastic which could move further microplastic into the global food web. This could lead to build up of toxic substances in marine life potentially lowering oceanic populations leading to more knock-on effects for the world’s ecology. The question of ethics concerning getting rid of the patch in light of life on it, if communities are now thriving naturally, it may be too late to get rid of the patch itself. It may be better to focus on preventing further garbage getting into to ocean through more responsible waste management and recycling. It could also be possible to stop the patches from getting any bigger by removing taking garbage from the sides to ensure it can’t do more possible damage to the local ecosystem. It should also be stressed that the patches will need to constant monitoring to keep it in check as well as get rid of new patches as they develop before similar situations can develop.

Glossary

Anthropocene: the unofficial name for the period of time used for the most recent era of the earths history most importantly noting when human impact on earth began to be significant.

neo pelagic: communities made up of pelagic species living on floating marine substrates.

Neuston: organisms associated with the surface film of bodies of water.

References

Bartels. M, 2023. Surprising creatures lurk in the great pacific garbage patch. Scientific American

Chong. F, Spencer. M, Maximenko. N, Hafner. J, McWhirter, Helm. R, 2022. High concentrations of floating neustonic life in the plastic-rich north Pacific garbage patch. PLoS Biology volume 21 (5).

Feehly. C, 2021. Plants and animals have started living on the great pacific garbage patch. Science alert.

Harem. E. L, Carlton. J. T, Centurioni. L, Crowley. M, Hafner. J, Maximenko. N, Murray. C. C, Shcherbina. A. Y, Hormann. V, Wright. C, Ruiz. G. M, 2021. Emergence of neo pelagic community through the establishment of coastal species on the high seas. Nature communications volume 12 (6885).

Haro. A, 2023. New study finds that the oceans garbage patches contain fragile ecosystems. The inertia

Hood. L. L, 2022. Hooray! The great pacific garbage patch has become a thriving ecosystem, scientists say. Futurism

Kottasova. I, 2023. The great pacific garbage patch is now so huge and permanent that a coastal ecosystem is thriving on it, scientists say. CNN world

Pillai. A, 2021. The great pacific garbage patch: the plastic ocean. International journal of multidisciplinary educational research volume 10 issue 4 (5).

Rosane. O, 2022. The great pacific garbage patch is also a hub of floating marine life. Eco watch

Wetzel. C, 2021. The great pacific garbage patch hosts life in the open ocean. Smithsonianmag smart news

I am a Medical Laboratory assistant and part time essayist with an interest in natural history and livestock managment. If you would like to see some of my other work please check here.

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