Large patches of plastic and garbage float on the surfaces of the ocean.
Now we know that same plastic and trash is in every part of the ocean, even the deepest trenches — and the animals there are eating it.
According to new research published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, six of the ocean’s deepest trenches are flooded with bits of plastic and synthetic fibers.
A deep-sea amphipod. leoaleks/Getty
In their study, the researchers from the University of New Castle collected samples of deep-sea amphipods, or small shrimp-like creatures that live at the very bottom of the ocean, at depths greater than 7,000 meters (20,000 feet). From their six collection sites in the Pacific Ocean, the researchers discovered that more than 80 percent of the amphipods they collected had plastic fibers and particles in their hindgut, a deep part of the creature's digestive system. The presence of plastic there indicates they’ve been exposed to the particles or fiber for a lengthy period of time.
What’s perhaps more shocking is that in the Mariana Trench, the deepest crevasse in the world’s oceans at 10,890 meters (35,728 feet), 100 hundred percent of the amphipods had fibers or particles of plastic in their hindgut. This suggests the concentrations of plastic are even greater the deeper you go.
In 2014, researchers discovered the world’s deepest seafloors were littered with plastic debris. Now, this latest research completes the circle of plastic contamination, making it clear the world’s oceans are littered with trash and potential contaminants. It also illustrates that the deepest places in the ocean are more polluted than perhaps thought because the plastic dropped from land sinks and has nowhere else to go once it hits the bottom.
“Microplastics ... are of particular concern in marine environments because they may be similar or smaller in size to prey or particles selected for ingestion by marine organisms," the authors wrote.
While these tiny sea creatures feed on plastics, they’re prey for larger sea creatures, which ingest plastics from their waters, too. Even larger creatures feed on them, and inevitably the plastic-filled fish enter the food cycle of fish and creatures that humans eventually eat.
“If we could magically snap our fingers over 10, 20, 50 years time and stop making plastic, what would happen to the plastic in the river? It would flush and wash out,” Alan Jamieson, a marine biologist at Newcastle University and the study's lead author, told National Geographic. “The coastlines would dilute and disperse. In the open ocean, the UV and wave action would act on that plastic and the surface would be clean again. What happens when you get to the deep sea, there's no dispersal or flushing. It's only going to get more and more and more.”
Today, more than 51 trillion pieces of plastic fill the earth’s oceans, and 90 percent of that plastic is microscopic, the kind of plastic sea creatures ingest when eating or taking in water.
“We can now say with confidence that plastic is everywhere,” Jamieson says. “Let's not waste our time looking for more. Let's concentrate our efforts on what it is actually doing.”
This most recent discovery adds to a mounting list of shocking places plastic has been discovered in the world’s oceans.
Last December, philanthropist Richard Branson, French explorer Jacques Cousteau, and National Geographic submersible pilot Erika Bergman explored the deepest trenches of Belize’s Great Blue Hole. There, they plotted stalactites and found creatures, like conches, that had fallen into the blue hole and suffocated due to the lack of oxygen. They also found plastic.
“As for the mythical monsters of the deep? Well, the real monsters facing the ocean are climate change – and plastic,” Branson wrote after the exploration. “Sadly, we saw plastic bottles at the bottom of the hole, which is a real scourge of the ocean.”