As we learnt last week, 90% of the trash found in the patch is plastic. This is of specific concern as plastic acts as a sort of chemical sponge absorbing excess chemicals, such as PCBs, but also leaches out others, including BPA (National Geographic 2012). This means that flotsam is extremely toxic and harmful to anything that ingests it, as unfortunately many animals do. When marine life ingest flotsam it has many negative effects including choking, perforating their insides and filling their stomach causing a feeling of fullness, therefore leading to starvation.
Traumatised Turtles– One of the main items found floating around the seas, and everyday life, is the plastic bag. Unfortunately plastic bags resemble jellyfish which are sea turtles favourite food. This has led to a study finding that 50% of all sea turtles having ingested some form of plastic (Crowley 2013).
Alarmed Albatross-said to be plastic pollution canaries, albatross are dying at an unprecedented rate due to flotsam ingestion. The flotsam is also regurgitated to the chicks, causing many to die prematurely (Schiller 2012). Albatross’ aren’t the only birds being effected, with studies showing up to a million seabirds a year are dying from plastic ingestion (Eidt 2015).
Poor Plankton-Not only have scientists captured plankton ingesting plastic particles on film (Plankton eating plastic caught on camera for the first time 2015), the rubbish soup inhibits their ability to perform as autotrophs. The layer of litter, up to 15 meters deep in some parts (National Geographic 2015), blocks out the sun’s rays, therefore preventing planktons ability to produce nutrients from a mixture of light, water, carbon dioxide and other chemicals, a process known as autotrophy (National Geographic 2015). Not being able to carry out this process leads to less plankton in the sea which means less food for animals higher in the food chain.
Unfortunate Filter Feeders– These marine creatures are exposed to increased flotsam ingestion in two ways. Firstly, due to the nature of their feeding in which they ingest large amounts of water and food, draining the water out of their mouths so only food remains, accidentally results in flotsam being taken in and ingested. Secondly, filter feeders natural food sources, such as plankton, have high chances of having ingested plastic too, resulting in these particles ending up in the filterfeeders digestive system (Henderson 2015).
We humans are not spared! Humans can ultimately be effected by the concentration of these chemicals passed up the food chain, as plankton are eaten by fish who are eaten by larger fish and sharks which are consumed by many people worldwide. This is known as bioaccumulation, meaning that those at the top are exposed to greater levels of the toxin. Health effects linked to these chemicals include: cancer, malformation and impaired reproduction (Ocean Cleanup nd.).
Other ways waste is harmful to the marine ecosystem:
Entanglement-Not only is the garbage harmful to marine life through ingestion, many animals including turtles, seals and dolphins become entangled in discarded nets and lines, causing them to starve or become victims to predators.
Disturbing the seabed– Whilst most trash floats on top of the ocean, some pieces sink to the bottom, disturbing the seabed and smothering bottom dwellers (UNEP nd.).
Transportation– garage can act as a transport mechanism for foreign species to enter new territories by riding the rubbish through the currents and being deposited in new areas where they can disrupt the local marine environment and cause devastating harm (UNEP nd.).
Whilst we have covered a lot of negative consequence caused by the trash circle, not all is lost! There are many people and organisations working towards restoring our oceans which we will dive into next week.
Crowley, J 2013, Sea turtle populations plummet due to plastic pollution, Global Animal, retrieved 5th April 2016, http://www.globalanimal.org/2013/09/26/sea-turtle-populations-plummet-due-to-plastic-pollution
Eidt, J 2015, Midway Atoll: The Plastic Plight of the Albatross, Pacific Voyagers¸ retrieved 3rd April 2016, http://pacificvoyagers.org/midway-atoll-the-plastic-plight-of-the-albatross/
Henderson, L 2015, Tiny plastic pieces accumulate in a huge marine filter-feeder, Oceanbites, retrieved 12th April 2016, http://oceanbites.org/tiny-plastic-pieces-accumulate-in-a-huge-marine-filter-feeder/
National Geographic 2014, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, National Geographic, retrieved 10th April 2016, http://education.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/great-pacific-garbage-patch/
Ocean Cleanup nd., The Plastic Pollution Problem, The Ocean Cleanup, retrieved 11th April 2016, http://www.theoceancleanup.com/problem.html
Plankton eating plastic caught on camera for the first time 2015, YouTube, New Scientists, 11th April 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGzIz9Ld-sE
Schiller, J 2012, Plastic-filled albatrosses are pollution canaries in new doc, Wired, retrieved 10th April 2016, http://www.wired.com/2012/08/albatross-midway-chris-jordan/
UNEP nd., Effects of Marine Litter, United Nations Environmental Programme, retrieved 11th April 2016, http://www.unep.org/regionalseas/marinelitter/about/effects/default.asp