Patches of Plastic in Ocean Harbor Dense, Delicate, Diverse “Neuston” Sea Life

(p. D8) In 2019, the French swimmer Benoit Lecomte swam over 300 nautical miles through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution.

As he swam, he was often surprised to find that he wasn’t alone.

“Every time I saw plastic debris floating, there was life all around it,” Mr. Lecomte said.

The patch was less a garbage island than a garbage soup of plastic bottles, fishing nets, tires and toothbrushes. And floating at its surface were blue dragon nudibranchs, Portuguese man-o-wars, and other small surface-dwelling animals, which are collectively known as neuston.

Scientists aboard the ship supporting Mr. Lecomte’s swim systematically sampled the patch’s surface waters. The team found that there were much higher concentrations of neuston within the patch than outside it. In some parts of the patch, there were nearly as many neuston as pieces of plastic.

“I had this hypothesis that gyres concentrate life and plastic in similar ways, but it was still really surprising to see just how much we found out there,” said Rebecca Helm, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study. “The density was really staggering. To see them in that concentration was like, wow.”

. . .

Dr. Helm and her colleagues pulled many individual creatures out of the sea with their nets: by-the-wind sailors, free-floating hydrozoans that travel on ocean breezes; blue buttons, quarter-sized cousins of the jellyfish; and violet sea-snails, which build “rafts” to stay afloat by trapping air bubbles in a soap-like mucus they secrete from a gland in their foot. They also found potential evidence that these creatures may be reproducing within the patch.

The findings were posted last month on bioRxiv and have not yet been subjected to peer review. But if they hold up, Dr. Helm and other scientists say, it may complicate efforts by conservationists to remove the immense and ever-growing amount of plastic in the patch.

. . .

. . . Dr. Helm said there is [an] . . . implication of the study: Organizations working to remove plastic waste from the patch may also need to consider what the study means for their efforts.

There are two nonprofit organizations working to remove floating plastic from the Great Pacific Patch. The largest, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation in the Netherlands, developed a net specifically to collect and concentrate marine debris as it is pulled across the sea’s surface by winds and currents. Once the net is full, a ship takes its contents to land for proper disposal.

Dr. Helm and other scientists warn that such nets threaten sea life, including neuston. Although adjustments to the net’s design have been made to reduce bycatch, Dr. Helm believes any large-scale removal of plastic from the patch could pose a threat to its neuston inhabitants.

“When it comes to figuring out what to do about the plastic that’s already in the ocean, I think we need to be really careful,” she said.

For the full story, see:

Annie Roth. “Marine Animals Float Amid Patch Of Pacific Garbage.” The New York Times (Tuesday, May 10, 2022): D8.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 8, 2022, and has the title “The Ocean’s Biggest Garbage Pile Is Full of Floating Life.”)

Helm’s co-authored draft paper is:

Chong, Fiona, Matthew Spencer, Nikolai Maximenko, Jan Hafner, Andrew McWhirter, and Rebecca R. Helm. “High Concentrations of Floating Life in the North Pacific Garbage Patch.” bioRxiv (posted April 28, 2022): 2022.04.26.489631.

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