A Surprising Sanctuary: North Pacific “Garbage Patch” Bustling with Marine Life

by Hiroshi Tanaka
6 comments
North Pacific Garbage Patch

Porpita, or blue button jellies, glide on the ocean’s surface, utilizing a round disc and surrendering their course to the whims of the currents. Credit: Denis Riek, The Global Ocean Surface Ecosystem Alliance (GO-SEA) Field Guide (CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

An insightful study spearheaded by citizen scientists uncovers the thriving marine biodiversity within the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”.

The North Pacific “Garbage Patch”, notorious for its accumulation of plastic waste, surprisingly also serves as a vibrant home to a variety of marine species such as jellyfish, snails, barnacles, and crustaceans. This was discovered in a research initiative led by Rebecca Helm and her team at Georgetown University, US. Their study has recently been published in PLOS Biology journal.

Five significant oceanic gyres — convergence zones of various ocean currents — exist globally, with the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) being the most expansive. The area, commonly dubbed as the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”, is characterized by a dense presence of plastic pollution due to the merging of ocean currents. However, a spectrum of drifting marine species including jellyfish (cnidarians), snails, barnacles, and crustaceans, leverage these currents to traverse the open ocean, although their exact habitats are still largely mysterious.

Velella, or the blue jellies, also referred to as by-the-wind sailors, use a unique living sail to drift with the wind. Credit: Denis Riek, The Global Ocean Surface Ecosystem Alliance (GO-SEA) Field Guide (CC-BY 4.0)

Leveraging an 80-day extended swim through the NPSG in 2019, the researchers requested the accompanying sailing crew to collect samples of both sea surface organisms and plastic debris. This allowed them to study these floating lifeforms. The expedition’s route was determined by computer simulations of ocean surface currents to foresee areas with high accumulation of marine waste.

While gathering daily samples of drifting life and debris in the eastern NPSG, the team discovered that marine creatures were more populous within the NPSG than its outskirts. The frequency of plastic waste was positively correlated with the abundance of three categories of floating sea organisms: sea rafts (Velella sp), blue sea buttons (Porpita sp), and violet sea snails (Janthina sp).

Violet snails, or Janthina, fabricate floating bubble rafts by immersing their body in the air and capturing one bubble at a time, which they then encase in mucus and attach to their float. Credit: Denis Riek, The Global Ocean Surface Ecosystem Alliance (GO-SEA) Field Guide (CC-BY 4.0)

The ocean currents that aggregate plastic debris in oceanic gyres are potentially essential to the life cycles of these drifting marine species, facilitating their congregation for feeding and breeding, suggest the authors. However, human activities pose a potential threat to these high-sea congregation areas and the wildlife reliant on them.

“The ‘garbage patch’ is more than just a garbage patch. It’s an ecosystem, and it thrives not because of the plastic but despite it,” Helm comments.

Reference: “High concentrations of floating neustonic life in the plastic-rich North Pacific Garbage Patch” by Fiona Chong, Matthew Spencer, Nikolai Maximenko, Jan Hafner, Andrew C. McWhirter, and Rebecca R. Helm, 4 May 2023, PLOS Biology.
DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001646

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about North Pacific Garbage Patch

What marine life exists in the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”?

The North Pacific “Garbage Patch” is home to a variety of marine species such as jellyfish, snails, barnacles, and crustaceans, despite its infamous reputation for plastic waste accumulation.

Who conducted the study on the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”?

The study on the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” was conducted by Rebecca Helm and her team at Georgetown University, US.

What are the main findings of this study?

The main findings of this study are the discovery of abundant marine life within the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”. It was found that the occurrence of plastic waste was positively correlated with the abundance of certain marine species.

How was the study on the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” conducted?

The researchers leveraged an 80-day long swim through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) in 2019. The sailing crew accompanying the expedition was asked to collect samples of sea creatures and plastic waste.

What is the significance of the ocean currents in the North Pacific “Garbage Patch”?

The ocean currents that accumulate plastic debris in the North Pacific “Garbage Patch” are also vital to the life cycles of floating marine species, as they facilitate the congregation of these species for feeding and breeding.

More about North Pacific Garbage Patch

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6 comments

SamTheSurfer July 17, 2023 - 6:07 am

i saw a velella once when i was surfing. Didn’t know they are also called by-the-wind sailors, thats kinda cool, lol.

Reply
ZeroWasteZoey July 17, 2023 - 7:57 am

This just shows why we need to cut down on our plastic consumption guys. it’s not just a ‘garbage patch’, it’s an ecosystem… let’s respect it.

Reply
BiologyNerd82 July 17, 2023 - 12:58 pm

Really fascinating stuff, these creatures adapt and survive in places where we’d least expect them. It’s a shame about the plastic though, we need to fix this!

Reply
SteveMarineLover July 17, 2023 - 3:29 pm

Can’t belive there’s so much life in the ‘Garbage Patch’… Nature truly is resilient, isn’t it!

Reply
OceanExplorer77 July 17, 2023 - 3:59 pm

Read this and was blown away… Did anyone else know that violet snails construct floating bubble rafts? That’s like, the coolest thing I’ve learnt today.

Reply
EcoWarriorJane July 17, 2023 - 6:01 pm

OMG! Humans, we need to do better. The ‘Garbage Patch’ sounds terrible but the creatures living there despite it all, it’s amazing and sad at the same time…

Reply

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