Surprising Species Are Finding Home in Pacific Garbage Patch

Coastal creatures are thriving far from their native homes, with unknown consequences
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 18, 2023 9:35 AM CDT
Surprising Species Are Finding Home in Pacific Garbage Patch
Plastics and other debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, fill a bag to be unloaded from the Ocean Voyages Institute sailing cargo ship Kwai in Sausalito, Calif., Wednesday, July 27, 2022.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Communities of coastal creatures are thriving far from home in the swirling trash soup that is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Researchers have found dozens of creatures normally found near coasts—including crustaceans, sea anemones, mollusks, and worms—surviving and reproducing on plastic waste in the huge patch between Hawaii and California. They've even been found eating "pelagic" or open-ocean species, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Researchers expected to find open-ocean species making a home on 105 pieces of plastic debris pulled from the patch between November 2018 and January 2019. But of the 484 marine invertebrate organisms identified, making up 46 different species, 80% were considered to be from coastal habitats many thousands of miles away, CNN reports.

It was a "shocking" discovery, lead study author Linsey Haram, a marine ecologist, tells NPR. Coastal species were widespread, too, appearing on 70% of the debris found, Haram tells CNN. Researchers don't fully understand how these species made it to new, remote areas, or the consequences of such a move. But it's clear that coastal and open-ocean species, found side by side on 66% of debris, are interacting in novel ways. "There's likely competition for space, because space is at a premium in the open ocean, there's likely competition for food resources—but they may also be eating each other," Haram tells CNN. Per NPR, researchers saw coastal anemones eating a kind of open-ocean snail, which could have "implications for all kinds of animals higher up the food chain like turtles, fish, and marine mammals."

The movement of coastal species could also have wide-ranging consequences. "These are species that have rafted out with coastal debris and have now successfully found essentially a novel habitat," study co-author and marine ecologist James Carlton tells New Scientist, adding researchers are likely to see more coastal species entering new zones as invasive species. "The research that we're doing here adds a very different type of effect that plastics have that previously wasn't really being considered," says Haram, per Scientific American. While coastal species were previously known to travel on ships and floating debris, ships have to return to port, and organic debris decomposes in the ocean within months. Plastic debris, on the other hand, stays in the ocean for years and now appears to be sustaining what the researchers are calling "neopelagic" communities. (More Great Pacific Garbage Patch stories.)

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