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  • Writer's pictureWill Hedrick

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now its own Ecosystem

This article is written by The Hedrick Project Contributor, Jessica Byrne. Interested in becoming a contributor and having your work featured? Click here.

Trash floating in ocean great pacific garbage patch

The gigantic floating mass of ocean plastic debris has now become home to hundreds of plant and animal species. While an interesting phenomenon, it's not exactly something to celebrate.


Humans have influenced the natural world for as long as we’ve existed, but only a handful of man-made inventions have impacted the planet as much as plastic.

A major phenomenon created by our plastic obsession is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). We’ve discussed it in detail on Thred before, including what it is, how big it is, and the impact it’s having on our oceans and all life within them.


You can read that story here if you want to get clued up on the facts.


Since its discovery, these gigantic floating masses of plastic have been closely assessed by scientists, but they only learned in recent weeks that marine life within the GPGP is as abundant and diverse as it is on coastal shorelines.


Why is this such a remarkable discovery? Well, the GPGP seems like an unlikely place for life to thrive. It is located 1,000m miles offshore at its closest point, is completely unsheltered from the sun’s harsh rays, and the water quality itself is far from ideal.


In fact, the surface of the water around the GPGP is often described as ‘soupy,’ completely riddled with toxic microplastics and plastic films.


A closer look at the floating trash reveals sea anemones, coral species, amphipods (similar to shrimps), oysters native to Japan, mussels, and more attached to various pieces of these plastics in large numbers.


These creatures, though typically preferring nutrient-rich shorelines, are living out in the open ocean clinging not to rocks, but to plastic. They are finding a home in the open ocean where they would be unexpected to survive.

Around 70 percent of debris pieces collected and sampled from the GPGP had living organisms on them, according to Linsey Haram, a former marine scientist from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre.


Within this plastic-abundant environment animals appeared to be competing for living space, resources, and most were even reproducing.


These qualities represent a vibrant ecological process, causing scientists to brand the GPDP as an ecosystem on its own.


Scientists call the remote area where the GPGP is a ‘food desert,’ meaning there is very little for the creatures to sustain themselves. For now, how they’ve managed to cope with this harsh environment remains a mystery.


Actually getting there is a different story, mind.


Scientists suggest that past cyclones and tsunamis have been responsible for sweeping coastal-dwelling animals out to sea. From here, the organisms hitch a ride on fast-moving currents before latching onto drifting pieces of plastic.

Though this presents a rather beautiful illustration of how nature always finds a way to survive adversity, scientists are approaching the new discovery with cautious optimism.


They say that we humans are inadvertently creating entirely new and unnatural ecosystems through our historically careless behaviour. These new environments, though impressive, could ‘fundamentally alter’ oceanic communities, including the balance of the food chain.


While nature can clearly withstand even our most horrific acts (i.e. creating a gigantic plastic continent where oceans should be free-flowing and pure), it doesn’t mean we can pump the breaks on our plastic-reducing habits.

Ocean clean-up projects, preventing plastic from reaching the ocean, and reducing plastic production in the first place should continue to be a priority.

While we’re busy doing our best with those tasks, we’ll be keeping our ear out for more details on the novel and mind-boggling GPGP ecosystem.

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