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From: Jon Koplik4/17/2023 10:21:07 PM
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WSJ -- Ocean garbage patch / Anemones and barnacles thrive on toothbrushes and ...................

April 17, 2023

Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch Is Bursting With Life

Anemones and barnacles thrive on toothbrushes and bottle shards thousands of miles from shore

By Nidhi Subbaraman

An 80,000-ton cloud of plastic and trash floating in the Pacific Ocean is an environmental disaster. It is also teeming with life.

Biologists who fished toothbrushes, rope and broken bottle shards from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch found them studded with gooseneck barnacles and jet-black sea anemones glistening like buttons. All told, they found 484 marine invertebrates from 46 species clinging to the detritus, they reported Monday in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The trash patch is the product of circular currents that form whirlpool-like gyres in five stretches of the world’s oceans. Plastic and ocean trash are swept into these spaces. A five-day boat ride from the California coast, where it spans over 610,000 square miles, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the biggest of these aggregations. “Micro-plastic” shards less than 5 millimeters long account for most of the debris, suspended in the water like pepper flakes in soup, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Between November 2018 and January 2019, the team collected 105 pieces of debris including nets, buoys and household items such as buckets and toothbrushes. They photographed and froze the objects before bringing them back to land. Ashore at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center laboratories in California and Maryland, they thawed the cargo piece by piece and scoured it for signs of life.

Most of the hitchhikers they found were coastal species that had found a way to thrive in the salty open ocean, a food desert for marine life that experiences punishing temperature extremes, said Linsey Haram, an ecologist and an author of the study.

Marine ecologists said they would expect most coastal species to struggle to survive outside their shoreline habitats. On the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, animals were found growing and reproducing.

“They’re having a blast,” said study author Matthias Egger, head of environmental and social affairs at the Dutch nonprofit The Ocean Cleanup. “That’s really a shift in the scientific understanding.”

Anemones like to protect themselves with grains of sand, Dr. Egger said, but out in the garbage patch they are covered in seed-like micro-plastics. Squeeze an anemone and the shards spew out, he said: “They’re all fully loaded with plastic on the outside and inside.”

Many of the invertebrates -- ­Pacific oysters, orange-striped anemones, rag worms -- ­are native to the coast of Japan. Dr. Haram said she suspects they were sucked into the ocean in 2011 by the tsunami that pummeled the Japan coast.

It is a rare chance to see the impact of a natural disaster on the ocean more than a decade after it occurred, said Rebecca Helm, a marine biologist at Georgetown University who has studied organisms at the gyre and wasn’t involved with the study. “We have a lot of coastal species that wouldn’t have made it to the open ocean living on plastic in the high seas.”

The patch is also a haven for animals that are at home on the open ocean. Such species -- ­sea snails, blue button jellyfish, and a relative called by-the-wind sailors -- ­gather more densely where there is more plastic, Dr. Helm and her team said in a study posted online ahead of peer-review.

Removing the plastic would mean uprooting them, Dr. Helm said: “Cleaning it up is not actually that simple.”

Write to Nidhi Subbaraman at

Copyright © 2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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