A couple of weeks ago, an oceanographer announced that the amount of plastic debris in the ocean is about two and a half times more than previously estimated—we just weren’t looking deep enough for it. Now, scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography are saying that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has increased 100-fold in the last 40 years and is now roughly the size of Texas.
In addition to the dangers the plastic poses to birds, fish, and marine mammals, which swallow it (Scripps studies have shown that 9% of fish have plastic material in their stomachs), the debris is also changing the ocean’s ecosystem by providing far more places for insects to lay their eggs. Sea skaters, which normally lay their eggs on seashells, feathers, and other small floating surfaces, are now also using the plastic—much of which has broken down into fingernail-sized pieces—and the number of eggs is increasing.
Another story in the news last week also provided some clues as to the movement of debris that ends up in the oceans. A 12-year-old boy in Sitka, Alaska, found a plastic card that had been floating in the ocean for 33 years. This particular piece had been put there on purpose, though, by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which released the postcard-sized pieces into the Bering Sea during the 1970s and ’80s to track where oil might end up in the event of a spill. NOAA printed instructions (still readable) on the cards in English, Japanese, and Russian and offered a $1 reward for those who returned the cards with a report of where they’d found them. A NOAA oceanographer says the card could have traveled as much as 88,000 miles before washing ashore, possibly having been caught for decades in the Aleut gyre.
And finally in the news last week, EPA Region 9 is offering $280,000 in funding for source-reduction projects to reduce or prevent land-based trash from entering coastal runoff.