The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (NPGP), a collection of floating trash about twice the size of Texas, is considered the scourge of humans' influence on our oceans, but surprising new research has found the island of trash is also home to a rich variety of wildlife. The curious discovery comes about with the help of someone who decided to casually swim from Hawaii to California by cutting through the heart of the NPGP to see what was there.
The enormous mass of trash is due to the eastern North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a current which has gradually accumulated floating debris discarded by humans over time. Now, a paper, yet to be peer-reviewed but published on the preprint server BioRxiv, explores the living organisms that are scooped up alongside the trash potentially representing an ecosystem as valuable as the Sargasso Sea.
An 80 day expedition, The Vortex Swim, set off to collect data on the patch by sailing between Honolulu, Hawaii, and San Francisco, California, in the summer of 2019. Alongside the vessel, named I Am Ocean, was Ben Lecomte who decided to swim the entire journey.
The team’s observations focused on neuston species – animals that live at the surface of the ocean. These animals recently drifted into the spotlight with the help of Assistant Professor and co-author on the new paper Rebecca Helm whose work on the damaging effects of scooping plastic out of the ocean launched the NASA-funded project GO-SEA.
“As floating organisms, obligate neuston are transported and concentrated by ocean surface currents,” the authors write. “Neuston, subjected to the same oceanographic forces that move buoyant man-made waste and pollutants, may also be concentrated in ‘garbage patches’.”
A glimpse into the heart of the NPGP revealed this to be true, as here researchers found a rich diversity of neuston life. The ecosystem floating among the trash included dazzling species such as predatory blue dragons, slime-rafting venomous snails, man-o-war jellyfish, and by-the-wind sailor colonial hydroids. In other words, quite the cast of floating ocean oddities.
The impressive diversity of life, Helm argues, is comparable to a meadow filled with trash so while the NPGP might be a great source of human shame, it also appears to be a crucial habitat for not just marine species but insects and airborne predators too. A point perhaps compounded by the fact that many animals found to be eating plastic, such as albatross, are the same animals trying to feed on neuston species in places like the NPGP.
“This is why we must stop plastic BEFORE it enters the ocean…,” said Helm on Twitter.
While floating human debris might not sound like prime real estate, the research found that densities of floating life were actually much higher in the center of the NPGP compared to its periphery, with a positive correlation existing between the amount of plastic and the amount of wildlife. As such, the authors argue, we must reframe how we see areas like the NPGP so that solutions to clean them up bear the swathes of life floating among the trash in mind.