SAN FRANCISCO -- Scientists say a new study is now revealing that one of the largest patches of pollution on the planet is also teaming with life. And they're trying to learn what it means for the ocean, and possibly the West Coast.
Marine Ecologist Chela Zabin, Ph.D., has always considered the humble Frogfish a remarkable sea creature. But not for the reason that has her examining a specimen now lying on her table at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Tiburon, California. Instead of its normal habitat, this one was plucked from a man-made environmental disaster zone. A massive stretch in the Pacific Ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
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"And the thing that's really interesting about the garbage patch, is it's essentially recreated a coastline, a floating coastline that has that three-dimensional structure that a lot of these coastal species depend on," Dr. Zabin said. "And it's sort of become a substitute environment for them."
A substitute environment made up of an estimated 80,000 tons of plastic, fishing nets and trash floating in the Pacific. Mary Crowley directs Ocean Voyages Institute, which organizes the clean-up missions, which have now expanded into an unexpected program of scientific research, and collecting specimens.
"We've discovered a tremendous amount on the expeditions we've done in terms of the composition of things that are out in the gyre," Crowley said. "I mean, it's amazing, the diversity of items. And then, you know, if you look closer, you can see things that are growing out there"
Growing, and in some cases thriving. Back at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Dr. Zabin is helping to identify specimens from what are believed to be at least 46 different species. Everything from tiny crustaceans to larger fish. And floating along with them are several critical questions. If those mounds of plastic can support life, could they also spread quickly into the marine food chain? Or perhaps carry invasive species from one continent to another.
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"So we have a lot of interesting ecological questions about that," Dr. Zabin said. "And then there's also some really significant potential environmental impacts, the plastics issue, obviously. But the idea that if these coastal species that are only found on one side of the Pacific Ocean, and are able to live out their lives and reproduce and perhaps grow in number, almost floating Garbage Patch, they may get close enough to the other side of the Pacific to our coast, that they can then move into the reef areas into the kelp forests and other places along our coast."
She says many of those key questions are still left to be answered.
Researchers say some of the species found in the patch are native to the coast of Japan. And they believe they may have been pulled far into the ocean during the massive Tohoku Tsunami in 2011, in a kind of a marine Big Bang theory.
In the meantime, Crowley says her organization is hoping to add a new vessel in the near future, joining a fleet that now has a dual mission: to help understand the ecological effects of a massive floating garbage patch while at the same time working to clean it up.
The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution by author Linsey Haram, Ph.D., then with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Tiburon, biologist Jim Carlton, Ph.D., of Williams College/Mystic Seaport Museum, Nikolai Maximenko, Ph.D., of the University of Hawaii, and Gregory Ruiz, Ph.D., of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.