EcoBeat Staff – Ocean currents are forced in different directions depending on a number of factors, including temperature patterns and the landforms that they flow around. At certain points where these currents converge, massive spinning phenomenon, known as gyres, form. One of five such gyres is located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California, at the convergence point of four different currents, forming the North Pacific gyre.
As pieces of plastic and debris are dumped in the ocean, they get pulled in to ocean currents and eventually end up in gyres. Debris gets caught in the spinning motion, creating a high density of pollution that can’t escape the ocean currents. If one were to look out at sea, the plastic and debris would not be visible; however, once you paddle through these areas, the water appears to a noticeable density of pepper-like specks become visible. Just like when you leave a plastic bag out in the sun for too long and it begins to flake apart, the plastic in the ocean breaks apart in to smaller pieces, known as microplastic.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a microplastic island twice the size of Texas, is located within the North Pacific gyre. The full impact on marine life is incalculable, as demonstrated in a study by marine ecologists Peter Davison and Rebecca Asch. On their 2009 Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastics Expedition (SEAPLEX), they found that 9.2% of the fish in the gyres had plastic in their stomachs, amounting to somewhere between 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic. It is worth considering that the situation has grown even more dire since the expedition, with an estimated eight million metric tons of plastic entering the oceans each year.The consequences of the pollution are not yet fully understood, though it is clear many bird species that feed on fish in these areas have been found to contain plastics as well. Scientists are still trying to understand what the implications of this plastic contamination will be throughout the entirety of the food-chain, including the potential impacts on human health as a result of consuming these fish. While answers to those questions are explored, it is clear that the world’s addiction to plastic must be reigned in if we are to protect ocean ecosystems.
For more, check out this feature from the Smithsonian