Plastic Trash Is Altering Ocean Habitats in Unexpected Ways

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A 100-fold upsurge in human-produced plastic garbage in the ocean is
altering habitats in the marine environment, according to a new study
led by a graduate student researcher at Scripps Institution of
Oceanography at UC San Diego.

In 2009 an ambitious group of graduate students led the Scripps
Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX) to the North
Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre aboard the Scripps research vessel New
Horizon. During the voyage the researchers, who concentrated their
studies a thousand miles west of California, documented an alarming
amount of human-generated trash, mostly broken down bits of plastic the
size of a fingernail floating across thousands of miles of open ocean.

At the time the researchers didn’t have a clear idea of how such
trash might be impacting the ocean environment, but a new study
published in the May 9 online issue of the journal Biology Letters
reveals that plastic debris in the area popularly known as the “Great
Pacific Garbage Patch” has increased by 100 times over in the past 40
years, leading to changes in the natural habitat of animals such as the
marine insect Halobates sericeus. These “sea skaters” or “water
striders”-relatives of pond water skaters-inhabit water surfaces and lay
their eggs on flotsam (floating objects). Naturally existing surfaces
for their eggs include, for example: seashells, seabird feathers, tar
lumps and pumice. In the new study researchers found that sea skaters
have exploited the influx of plastic garbage as new surfaces for their
eggs. This has led to a rise in the insect’s egg densities in the North
Pacific Subtropical Gyre.

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