Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Pacific Ocean’s ecology affected by floating debris

Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

A team of researchers working off the coast of California has determined that the amount of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean has increased at least one hundred fold over the past 40 years.

The scientists, who are from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, have also discovered that this growing mass of trash (known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”) has begun altering the ecology. As reported by CBS News, the water-skimming marine insects known as Halobates sericeus lay eggs on the water’s surface, usually organic matter like seabird feathers and shells. With the preponderance of tiny bits of plastic, however, the insects have found plentiful new real estate to spread their eggs.

"We thought there might be fewer Halobates if there's more plastic - that there might be some sort of toxic effect. But, actually, we found the opposite. In the areas that had the most plastic, we found the most Halobates,” said Scripps researcher Miriam Goldstein to BBC News. "So, they're obviously congregating around this plastic, laying their eggs on it, and hatching out from it. For Halobates, all this plastic has worked out well for them."

"This is something that shouldn't be in the ocean and it's changing this small aspect of the ocean ecology," Goldstein added to CBS News.

The expedition occurred over three weeks in August of 2009, when the team trawled 1,000 miles of California coast to research the impact of debris on the ocean’s ecology. Partly sponsored by the University of California and the National Science Foundation, the crew also discovered that close to 10 percent of fish studied during the trip had ingested pieces of the floating plastic.