Miriam Goldstein: People like to say the ocean is downhill from everywhere. Everything ends up in the ocean eventually, if it doesn’t wash up or go someplace else. So people in Iowa who are throwing things into the rivers, that’s going to end up in the ocean.
Miriam Goldstein: In the case of the North Pacific gyre, everything that falls off the west coast of North America and the east coast of Asia will probably end up stuck in there if it doesn’t sink or decompose.
Goldstein’s team has been towing nets across the ocean to collect and analyze the tiny bits of plastic accumulating in the patch. She said the plastic is impacting ocean ecosystems, though she does not yet know to what extent.
Miriam Goldstein: This plastic is providing a surface for animals that would not naturally live in the middle of the ocean and it might be transporting them across where they would not normally go.
In other words, creatures like barnacles and anemones are hitching rides from the shore to the middle of the ocean. As these creatures continue arrive in great numbers, said Goldstein, they may be altering the ocean’s food web. Goldstein said that every human can help prevent this–even those who live in the middle of a continent–by properly disposing of their plastic. She added that it’s affecting deep-water marine life as well.
Miriam Goldstein: We found a deep-sea fish called a hatchet fish that had a piece of plastic in its stomach. Since it never comes up to the surface, it definitely had to eat it in the deep sea. Some plastic is sinking down to these ecosystems.
Goldstein said that they were surprised to find so much plastic in every tow they did–in over 1700 miles (2735 kilometers) worth of ocean.
Miriam Goldstein: It’s putting a hard surface into a land that should not have many hard surfaces.
She reiterated that all people can help, if they make the effort to consume less, and dispose of garbage correctly, or recycle it.
Miriam Goldstein: Seeing this sign of people and our disposable lifestyle out there in the middle of nowhere made us all really sad. I think that we need to know that there are wildernesses in the world and there are places you can go that are totally wild and untouched by people and if the middle of the ocean is not one of those places then that really breaks all of our hearts.
Miriam Goldstein is a Ph.D. graduate student in biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and is particularly interested in the impact of plastic debris on marine invertebrates. She served as chief scientist on the Scripps Environmental Accumulation of Plastic Expedition (SEAPLEX), a 20-day expedition to study accumulation of plastic debris in the central Pacific. Ms. Goldstein also writes a blog on marine biology.