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In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a circular pattern of currents, called the North Pacific gyre, has corralled an enormous vortex of floating garbage. Often referred to as the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, the area, which is at least the size of Texas, is like a slowly churning bowl of plastic soup. Roughly 80 percent of the debris, which ranges from bottles and fishing gear to toothbrushes and packaging scraps, came from land.

map of the North Pacific gyre
The currents of the North Pacific gyre have corraled so much trash in the circle labeled "study area" that it has been dubbed the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch.
Images courtesy of: Jean Kent Unatin/Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Captain Charles Moore, head of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, discovered the accidental dump in the early 1990's, when he sailed through a rarely traveled area between Hawaii and the mainland. Over the course of a week, despite being hundreds of miles from land, Moore watched a continuous stream of plastic trash float by.

entangled sea lion
A California sea lion entangled and injured by discarded fishing line. Image courtesy: Marine Photobank, © 1990 Bob Talbot, LegaSea Project

While the garbage patch is alarming because of its size and high concentration of trash, marine debris affects waters and coastlines around the world. Animals frequently become entangled in large pieces of debris and can be cut, drowned, or slowed down by dragging the extra weight. Heavy gear like abandoned fishing nets can damage reefs and other important habitat. Each year, marine debris kills more than one million birds and 100,000 marine mammals and causes hundreds of boating accidents.

sample of plastic bits
A sample of plastic bits found in the waters of the North Pacific gyre. Image courtesy: Jeffery Ernst/Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Because of its durability and our increased use in recent decades, scientists estimate that plastic makes up 60 to 80 percent of marine debris worldwide. This creates a difficult problem because most plastics are not biodegradable. (Bacteria don't break them down into simple, harmless components the way they do paper or wood.) Instead, as plastic ages, the sun breaks it into smaller and smaller pieces. In some parts of the North Pacific gyre, plastic bits outweigh plankton by more than six to one in the surface waters.

This tiny plastic confetti, along with larger pieces of floating plastic, creates a big problem. Birds like the Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), and filter feeders that strain food out of the water, mistake plastic for plankton, fish eggs, or other food. On remote Midway Atoll, albatross chicks die of starvation and dehydration because their parents have unwittingly fed them bottle caps and cigarette lighters, which they can't digest. Even in the protected waters surrounding the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, our refuse threatens endangered species like Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles.

albatross nesting area littered with garbage
Even on remote Midway Atoll, marine debris is scattered over albatross nesting areas. Image courtesy: Steven Siegel/Marine Photobank

Scientists have also found that the tiny pellets used to make plastic products (nick-named mermaid's tears) can act like little sponges, soaking up toxic chemicals from seawater. Spills of these pellets before they are made into products are not uncommon, and they can be found in marine habitats—and the diets of wildlife—around the world.

 

Related Links...

NOAA Marine Debris Project
http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/

Algalita Marine Research Foundation
http://www.algalita.org/index.html

For Kids!
Keep the Ocean Clean

http://www.keepoceansclean.org/home/

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