The world's oceans are increasingly becoming dumping grounds for mankind's waste, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Pacific, where amounts of floating plastic garbage have increased 100-fold.
The ocean where so many epic, nation-saving World War II battles were won is now home to increasing amounts of waste, according to scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who trawled waters off the coast of California recently and compared this "catch" to earlier hauls.
"Plastic pollution in the form of small particles (diameter less than 5 mm) - termed 'microplastic' - has been observed in many parts of the world ocean," the scientists group reported in the journal Biology Letters. "They are known to interact with biota on the individual level, e.g. through ingestion, but their population-level impacts are largely unknown."
The amount of waste discovered startled researchers.
"We did not expect to find this," said Scripps researcher Miriam Goldstein, a Ph.D. graduate student in biological oceanography.
"When you go out into the North Pacific, what you find can be highly variable. So, to find such a clear pattern and such a large increase was very surprising," she told BBC News.
Consequences across the marine food web?
Researchers say all of the plastic that is thrown into the ocean and does not sink will, through the effects of sunlight and the action of waves over time, break down into pieces the size of a fingernail or smaller.
Initially, the big concern was what effect the broken down plastic would have on marine life if ingested. But the Scripps team is more concerned about something else. The increased prevalence of plastic has made it easier for the marine insect Halobates sericeus, or water strider, to lay its eggs out over the ocean.
"Such an increase, documented for the first time in a marine invertebrate (animal without a backbone) in the open ocean, may have consequences for animals across the marine food web, such as crabs that prey on sea skaters and their eggs," said a University of California, San Diego (UCSD) news release summarizing the Scripps find.
But the increased plastic level in what many describe as the Pacific Ocean "garbage patch" has also been documented as affecting other marine life. For example, Goldstein's Scripps report followed on the heels of another separate report by colleagues at the same institute, which said 9 percent of the fish collected during the same voyage had plastic waste in their stomachs.
That study, which was published in the Marine Ecology Progress Series, estimated that fish in the intermediate ocean depths in the North Pacific Ocean could be eating between 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic a year.
'Quite a profound change'
While researchers say they were initially concerned about toxicity regarding these levels of plastic, they have since begun to consider broader ecological implications, according to Goldstein.
"The study raises an important issue, which is the addition of hard surfaces to the open ocean," she said.
"In the North Pacific, for example, there's no floating seaweed like there is in the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. And we know that the animals, the plants and the microbes that live on hard surfaces are different to the ones that live floating around in the water," Goldstein continued.
"So, what plastic has done is add hundreds of millions of hard surfaces to the Pacific Ocean. That's quite a profound change."
The dramatic rise in ocean trash has alarmed scientists, many of whom are examining ways to rid the seas of garbage. The garbage patch in the North Pacific is the world's largest, and is said to cover an area twice as large as France.
One idea being considered is using organic microbes that already exist in the sea that naturally feed on plastic. The results are said to be promising.
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