Study reveals depressing extent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

23 Mar 2018

Image: nomadFra/Shutterstock

It has been more than 20 years since the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and new research shows that there has been a lot of hearsay and conjecture.

First discovered in 1997 by yachtsman Charles Moore, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – as it has come to be known – is one of the most famous ecological disaster sites of recent times.

It has been described as larger than the state of Texas, even though it doesn’t appear in satellite imagery.

According to National Geographic, a detailed study of the patch has been published in Scientific Reports, putting some actual numbers on the scale of the damage and envisioning what its future holds.

Of the 1.8trn pieces of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, 94pc are microplastics, which are commonly pointed out as being harmful to the fish and birds that consume them.

However, the study also found that our belief that the patch is made from typical consumer waste such as plastic bottles and packaging is incorrect.

While this waste amounts to 8pc of the total tonnage, the remaining 79,000 metric tonnes of plastic are actually made up of abandoned fishing gear.

With 46pc of the waste comprising fishing nets, the remaining items were things such as ropes, crates, baskets and eel traps. A whopping 20pc of that is believed to have washed out during the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

The shocking figures also reveal that this quantity of waste is as much as 16 times larger than had been previously estimated.

Clean-up efforts to come

“I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46pc was unexpectedly high,” said Laurent Lebreton, who led this research.

“Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20pc range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally – 20pc from fishing sources and 80pc from land.”

Working as part of the group The Ocean Cleanup, Lebreton and the rest of the team plan to develop a system that would remove much of this fishing gear later this year.

Speaking of the findings, George Leonard, chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy, said: “The interesting piece is that at least half of what they’re finding is not consumer plastics – which are central to much of the current debate – but fishing gear.

“This study is confirmation that we know abandoned and lost gear is an important source of mortality for a whole host of animals and we need to broaden the plastic conversation to make sure we solve this wedge of the problem.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic