Imagine you’re in a dimly lit Italian restaurant. Famished, you take the first bite of a juicy eggplant parmesan dinner, and it turns out to be a big hunk of plastic. (Yuk.)
That’s the reality for fish in an area of the ocean known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where fish are mistaking their food sources with a growing amount of floating trash.
Two graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Pete Davison and Rebecca Asch, joined the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition, or SEAPLEX, where they found evidence of plastic waste in more than 9 percent of the stomachs of fish collected during their voyage to the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The mid-water fishes contained plastic debris, primarily broken-down bits smaller than a human fingernail.
“That is an underestimate of the true ingestion rate because a fish may regurgitate or pass a plastic item, or even die from eating it. We didn’t measure those rates, so our 9 percent figure is too low by an unknown amount,” said Davison.
Based on these rates of ingestion, they estimate that fish in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific ingest plastic at a rate of roughly 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year, but the real number could be much higher.
“These fish have an important role in the food chain because they connect plankton at the base of the food chain with higher levels” said Asch, but accumulation in the food chain and the toxic effects of the plastic requires further investigation.
Many disposable items, such as plastic water bottles, plastic bags, lighters and food wrappers end up on our coasts and out in the open oceans. Plastic can now be found in some of the most remote places of the world after breaking down and floating great distances in ocean currents.
There are many things that you can do this holiday weekend to limit trash entering our oceans, and a great way to start is by taking our pledge to reduce and recycle plastic waste or clean up a local waterway this summer.
Matt Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.