A recent study by Rebecca Helm and her colleagues from Georgetown University has found that the North Pacific “Garbage Patch,” infamous for its accumulation of plastic waste, is not just home to the debris but also a thriving ecosystem of floating sea creatures. The research has been published in the PLOS Biology open-access journal.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) is the largest of the five oceanic gyres, where different ocean currents meet and create vortexes of water. Due to the convergence of these currents, a significant amount of plastic waste has accumulated in the NPSG, earning it the nickname of the North Pacific “Garbage Patch.”
Despite the presence of plastic waste, many floating ocean creatures, including cnidarians like jellyfish, snails, barnacles, and crustaceans, use the ocean currents to travel through the open sea. However, their habitat and lifestyle remain largely unknown.
To explore the existence of floating marine life in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), the researchers utilized a unique opportunity presented by an 80-day long-distance swim through the area in 2019. They asked the accompanying sailing crew to gather samples of surface sea creatures and plastic waste, following a route that had been planned using computer simulations of ocean surface currents to identify regions with high concentrations of marine debris.
Throughout the expedition, the team collected daily samples of floating life and waste within the eastern NPSG. They discovered that sea creatures were more abundant inside the NPSG as compared to the surrounding areas. Interestingly, the abundance of three groups of floating sea creatures, namely sea rafts (Velella sp), blue sea buttons (Porpita sp), and violet sea snails (Janthina sp), was positively associated with the occurrence of plastic waste.
According to the researchers, the ocean currents responsible for accumulating plastic waste in oceanic gyres may have a crucial role to play in the life cycles of floating marine creatures. These currents enable the organisms to come together for feeding and mating purposes. However, human actions could pose a threat to these high sea meeting areas and the wildlife that relies on them.
Rebecca Helm emphasized that the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” is not just a dumping ground for waste, but also a thriving ecosystem in its own right. The plastic waste accumulation does not define this area, but rather exists alongside a diverse range of marine life forms.