Life Has Found A Way On The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a huge collection of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s made up mostly of plastic—things like water bottles, shoes, and fishing gear, but also a large amount of microplastics, tiny bits of broken-down plastic that can be invisible to the naked eye.
A giant, swirling patch of trash seems bad. But recent research has revealed a complicating factor: Marine life has colonized the garbage patch, making the floating plastic their new homes. As the classic Jurassic Park quote goes, “Life finds a way.”
Joining Ira to talk about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Linsey Haram, AAAS fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian.
Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.
Linsey Haram is an AAAS fellow at the U.S. Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and now for an update on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You know that giant collection of trash floating in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s made up mostly of plastic, things like water bottles, shoes, fishing gear, but also a large amount of microplastics, tiny bits of broken down plastic that can be invisible to the naked eye. A giant swirling patch of trash seems wholly bad, right? But research on the Garbage Patch has revealed a complicating factor.
Marine life has colonized the Garbage Patch making the floating plastic their new homes. As the classic Jurassic Park quote goes, “Life finds a way.” Joining me today to talk about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is my guest Linsey Haram, AAAS fellow at the US Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian. Welcome to Science Friday.
LINSEY HARAM: Thank you so much for having me. Excited to be here.
IRA FLATOW: OK, walk me through what you found about life on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
LINSEY HARAM: Yeah, absolutely. So colleagues and I studied what sort of invertebrates, so the little insect-like critters that colonize surfaces, what was growing on plastics in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So we found all sorts of things from seaweeds to barnacles and anemones, so really ran the gamut.
IRA FLATOW: Could you figure out where these came from?
LINSEY HARAM: Yeah, so some of them are actually native to the open ocean. So they require floating debris in order to live out their lives. And then others were actually coastal species that were able to colonize plastics and ended up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch somehow.
IRA FLATOW: So I guess the Garbage Patch is sort of just another coast for them.
LINSEY HARAM: Interestingly, it seems like that may be the case. But we’re trying to figure out how well they’re actually living on plastics out there. So is this really like just another habitat where they can live, or is it an attractive place to live that actually isn’t very good for them? We’re trying to figure out those answers now.
IRA FLATOW: When you say not good for them, what do you mean by that?
LINSEY HARAM: Yeah, so it’s possible that these coastal species are settling on plastics and then swept to sea. So they don’t actually intend to be in the open ocean. In which case, they could be experiencing very different environmental conditions than they would on the coast from things like very intense UV light which can be destructive for small critters or poor food resources. That’s another major hypothesis that we have. So, yeah, it’s unclear at this point. We know that there are coastal species out there, but we don’t know how well they’re surviving.
IRA FLATOW: That’s interesting. Some people may look at this issue from the outside and think why doesn’t someone just scoop up all this plastic? But your work shows that this is a more complicated issue than just that.
LINSEY HARAM: That’s true. Yes, so it’s quite a complicated issue. You have the fact that, one, this is pollution. So we are putting our waste into the oceans whether intentionally or unintentionally. So we have an obligation to do something about that. But then you also have the fact that now critters are being found living on this plastic debris. That complicates things quite a bit.
But then there are other even more complicated matters to think about which is, so if these critters are living on the plastics like we talked about before, what if the plastics aren’t actually good habitat for them? And it creates a scenario that’s an ecological trap which means that these organisms, these species, these critters end up preferring to use this habitat. But actually, in the end, their fitness is lowered. So it can become a sink for them. It can become a destructive source of habitat.
IRA FLATOW: I see how complicated all of this is.
LINSEY HARAM: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Are you are you saying, then, that it’s better to preserve the patch than to try to clean it up?
LINSEY HARAM: I’m saying we don’t know, honestly. Yeah, there are a lot of open-ended questions right now that need to be answered. And then we also have to think about this in terms of the larger animals that will come into contact with floating plastic debris as well like seabirds. Albatrosses are a classic example. Their feeding grounds are in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and as a result, they’re one of the poster children for consuming plastics and suffering the consequences. So should we clean it up in an ideal world? Yes. But there are considerations to be made and more that needs to be known, I think.
IRA FLATOW: In some ways this research about the reef reminds me of how some scientists want to rethink invasive species. That just because a creature was introduced to a new environment by people doesn’t mean that humans should have the right to determine their fates. Is this a fair comparison?
LINSEY HARAM: I think it is, to a certain extent. And I will admit I’m an invasion biologist. So I might not be as middle of the road on this as others could be, I guess. But I’m coming to this from the lens of a pretty good background in invasive species literature. And I think one important thing to note is that we shouldn’t, especially in the Anthropocene, so now in this era when humans are essentially having effects on everything in the natural world, we can’t immediately go into a situation and deem it to be negative.
However, if the introduced species, talking about invasive species in particular, is having a negative impact on the environment and we can do something about it to either reverse that or at least give the native species a leg up to be able to compete and live and thrive among the new introduced species, I think that’s the way to go. And that’s the philosophy that I have about invasive species.
IRA FLATOW: That’s about all the time we have. I’d like to thank you, Linsey Haram, a AAAS fellow at the US Department of Agriculture based in Alexandria, Virginia. Her research on the Garbage Patch was done for the Smithsonian. Thank you for joining us.
LINSEY HARAM: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed it.
Kathleen Davis is a producer at Science Friday, which means she spends the week brainstorming, researching, and writing, typically in that order. She’s a big fan of stories related to strange animal facts and dystopian technology.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.