Wednesday January 24, 2024


In the Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and California, at least 79,000 metric tons of plastic has coalesced to create the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch, kept together by ocean currents and spanning an area of roughly 1.6 million square kilometers—about twice the size of Texas—is one of the most incriminating examples of human pollution on the planet. It’s also a huge hazard for marine life, killing up to 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals each year via ingestion of plastic or entanglement in plastic pieces.

But while the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is harming some creatures, it’s actually helping others to survive. In a study published in April 2023 in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a team of interdisciplinary scientists fished 105 pieces of plastic from the patch and found barnacles and bryozoans stuck to items like toothbrushes, clothes hangers and shampoo bottles. In addition to open-ocean species, coastal organisms were frequently found on the items—the plastics were acting as little rafts, carrying creatures far from their shallow coastal homes.

Common coastal stowaways included amphipods, isopods, hydroids and bryozoans, most of which originated from the northwest Pacific. Many of the coastal species were likely carried out to sea as debris from the Japan earthquake and tsunami of 2011. Not only had these tenacious creatures survived the journey to the garbage patch, but crustacean eggs and anemone buds (new anemones growing from old ones) indicate that many of them “are clearly capable of living, surviving and reproducing in the open ocean with the aid of plastic pollution,” says study coauthor and invertebrate zoologist Henry Choong of the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. The plastics, he says, provide them with a “permanent, non-biodegradable ‘home.’”

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