The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Poses New Threat to Marine Life

A landfill twice the size of Texas is floating in the middle of the Pacific, and scientists are starting to get worried.

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Imagine a landfill twice the size of Texas, filled with junk, castoffs and other trash. Now imagine it’s floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex of plastic and flotsam, stretches across a vast swath of the Ocean and has long been a concern of scientists worried about its effects on marine life. Now, researchers from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography have found that a sharp increase in debris floating in a region between Hawaii and California — dubbed the Eastern Garbage Patch — is significantly affecting the environment of one of the ocean’s smallest residents.

The finding, published Wednesday in Biology Letters, reports that a marine insect that skims the oceans surface is laying eggs on top of plastic bits rather than natural flotsam, which scientists are concerned could be replaced by debris in its habitat.

(MORE: Giant Floating Garbage Patch: Now in the Atlantic, Too! )

“This is something that shouldn’t be in the ocean and it’s changing this small aspect of the ocean ecology,” said Scripps graduate student Miriam Goldstein to the Associated Press.

Previous research has similarly looked into not only the endangered wildlife that suffers from this floating trash, but how this mass collection of debris got here in the first place.

In 2006, the Los Angeles Times detailed the decline of the Albatross in the Midway Atoll, a collection of islands about half way between North America and Japan. The birds commonly fly over the Eastern Garbage Patch, mistaking trash for food. As a result, about 200,000 of the 500,000 chicks born there each year died from dehydration and starvation. An Environmental Protection Agency study showed that the chicks that died of those causes had twice as much plastic in their stomachs. Bottle caps, combs, golf tees, toothbrushes and even toy soldiers were found inside the birds.

(MORE: Why the Albatross is Our Albatross)

These items come from all over the world, swept along by the system of currents called the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The garbage patch is in an area of slow-moving winds and currents, where garbage from all over the Pacific comes to collect, which the L.A. Times compared to “foam piling up in the calm center of a hot tub.”

The article additionally pointed out that four-fifths of the marine trash comes from land, blown into the ocean by wind or rain;  the remainder is refuse from ships. Once caught in the ocean, debris can spin for decades. The U.N. Environment Program estimates that each square mile of ocean carries 46,000 pieces of plastic litter bobbing on its surface. The Associated Press reports that most of those plastic pieces are confetti-sized flecks — a fact that might explain why 10 percent of the fish previously studied by the Scripps research team had ingested plastic.

MORE: Expedition Sets Sail to the Great Plastic Vortex