Large Garbage Patch Damages Ecosystem

The enormous loop of ocean currents in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, sometimes referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” has grown by a factor of 100 in the last 40 years. The Scripps team believes it is currently three times the size of the continental United States. 

In a new study published in the May 9 issue of Biology Letters, Scripps scientists Miriam Goldstein, Marci Rosenberg and Lanna Cheng explain how the quantity of trash changes the habitat of ocean surface organisms. 

Despite its size, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is invisible from afar. 

“There’s a misconception of there being a giant floating island out there, but it’s actually millions of tiny pieces the size of your fingernail,” Goldstein said. “You can’t see it from Google Earth.” 

Goldstein and her colleagues studied sea skaters, marine cousins of the water striders commonly found in ponds and pools of fresh water. They are among a very small number of species that live exclusively on the surface of the ocean. 

“Ocean surface creatures like halobates tend to be not biodiverse and very weedy,” Goldstein said. “They reproduce very fast if you give them additional resources.”

Goldstein said most of the plastic they sampled was covered in the bright yellow, jelly-like granules. However, the team was not able to show with their data that there are more adult halobates. 

“We didn’t have enough samples from previous years,” Goldstein said.

The Scripps team believes that more adults are not seen because predators are eating the eggs.  

“They’re just super delicious,” Goldstein said. “They’re a millimeter long, the size of a grain of rice and visible with the naked eye.”

Because the location of the gyre changes depending on the season and year of the El Nino cycle, the team decided to go to a consistently calm patch near the center. They went west at 119 degrees latitude for five days. 

Goldstein said that she is frequently asked whether trash can be cleaned up. 

“It would be very challenging because the pieces are so small,” Goldstein said. “If you scooped up the trash, you’d be killing a huge amount of marine life as well.”

She cited the sheer size of the gyre as another obstacle to cleaning it up.

“I’m sure in geological time, it will go someplace,” Goldstein said. “It’s a huge area, and microbes evolve really fast — something will eventually be able to digest plastic. But a blink of an eye for them is 10,000 years. By that time we could make things really unpleasant for ourselves.”


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