Plastic bags are some of the most common kinds of litter that you can see in the ocean. Plastic takes years to decompose and will create dangerous pollutants that threaten marine life. One of the most dangerous aspects of plastic is the fact that many animals mistake them for food, especially since they greatly resemble peacefully floating jellyfish. Animals who eat plastic die either of suffocation or intestinal blockage caused by the non-biodegradable litter.
In addition to the consumption hazard plastic threatens sea life with, these materials are also dangerous for animals that get trapped in it, leading to their deaths while they struggle to escape the plastic. Some animals drown while being caught in plastic refuse, and others simply starve or get so wounded in the process, their wounds are left to fester.
Plastic bags are so sturdy and averse to decomposition that they can travel for thousands of miles on the ocean’s currents. Since most currents end up in the Arctic, a recent study has shown that the Arctic ocean floor is literally covered with garbage that has traveled for miles from more industrialised areas.
The findings were published online in the Marine Pollution Bulletin. The study was headed by Dr. Melanie Bergmann, who is a marine biologist specialising in deep sea studies. She is currently affiliated with the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) for Polar and Marine Research, which is under the Helmholtz Association.
Dr. Bergmann says that the Arctic floor is much more polluted than the deep sea canyon of found in Portugal near Lisbon, which has long been considered one of the most polluted deep sea areas in the world. The arctic is strewn with so much garbage that the sea floor already looks like a massive dump site.
The AWI deep sea observatory called Hausgarten is where the waste levels are being monitored. Hausgarten is found in the Eastern Fram Strait and consists of 16 stations. Some of the stations go as deep as 5500 metres below the ocean surface. These stations provide a steady supply of samples that allow scientists to keep track of the health of the ocean floor. These samples have been retrieved yearly since the start of 1999.
In her study, Bergmann not only relied on the samples taken of the sea floor, but also took several special photographs taken near the stations. She took about 2100 photographs in order to determine the garbage levels found on the ocean floor. She then compared them with photos taken of the sea floor that are dated between 2002-2011.
She notes that the garbage levels are increasing steadily despite the fact that the strait is not a major tourist route. Since plastic does not decompose quickly, the garbage gets brought there on currents and gradually build up over time.
Currently, about 2% of the sea floor is covered with plastic. While regular people may think that 2% is not much, the truth is that this amount of plastic in the ocean is considered an extreme risk to marine life and deep sea ecosystems.