It has been approximated that 14 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean annually. Due to this, plastic debris has become the most commonly found form of litter in the ocean, with an 80% share of all marine debris found within surface water and deep-sea sediment.

The ubiquity of plastic on shorelines around the world is well-documented, with more waste discovered in regions with high population density and popular tourist destinations.

According to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), most plastic debris in the ocean is land-based via sewer overflows, stormwater runoffs, constrained waste disposal and management, illegal dumping and tire abrasion among other ways.

It has been determined that plastic waste in oceans poses a grave threat to marine life, including fish, turtles, and seabirds.

The ingestion of plastics, such as microplastics, can cause physical harm and even death. Additionally, plastic pollution can obstruct the natural habitat of marine animals and disrupt the ecosystem.

Ocean Cleanup Efforts

Over the years, there have been global drives to clean up the oceans in addition to reducing plastic debris. The Ocean Cleanup (TOC), the world’s largest organization for floating plastic cleanup initiatives has from 2021 removed over 200 tons of plastic mainly from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

This is the area spanning between California and Hawaii – known for its floating debris. It ends up there due to ocean currents.

To put this into perspective, this area notorious for floating waste is estimated to be three times the size of France and holds more than 400 times the amount of plastic debris TOC has recovered so far, while not accounting for additional waste streaming in every day from boats and rivers.

The Ocean Cleanup operates two ships in the area and they move parallel to each other, between them are several hundred meters. Behind them is a colossal U-shaped barrier, resembling a fishing net. With this barrier, TOC captures debris.

The founder and CEO of TOC To Boyan Slat believes this plastic removal endeavor “signifies an age in which we’re starting to correct the problems we ourselves have created.”

However, not many people support TOC’s activities, citing inefficiencies and the huge costs involved and that the initiative is a distraction from the root of the problem, which is the disposal of vast amounts of plastics into the oceans. Critics argue that not enough is being done to prevent plastic from getting into the sea in the first place.

Nevertheless, TOC is now faced with a much bigger problem, with new charges claiming that the company’s cleanup efforts are doing much more than remove plastic, they are capturing sea creatures residing among it and as a result, disrupting the marine habitat.

TOC Capturing Floating Marine Life Along With Plastic

According to a new study: “High concentrations of floating neustonic life in the plastic-rich North Pacific Garbage Patch,” authored by Fiona Chong, Matthew Spencer, Nikolai Maximenko, Jan Hafner, Andrew C. McWhirter, and Rebecca R. Helm, floating marine life referred to as “neuston” lives in the area TOC is capturing plastic waste.

Marine biologist Rebecca Helm explains that this happens because plastic debris and these living organisms tend to float and gather together in water, similar to how cereal clumps in a bowl. Wind and ocean currents also contribute to the formation of these “patches.”

In 2019, Helm, an assistant professor at Georgetown University, had the opportunity to investigate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

A sailing crew joined long-distance swimmer Benoît Lecomte as he swam through the patch, towing a small net to collect samples of floating marine life and plastic debris daily.

They also took samples from the area surrounding the patch for comparison. A total of 22 samples were photographed and studied.

Helm together with their colleagues at the University of Hull in the United Kingdom, carried out an analysis of the collected samples with the help of an image-processing software, which could identify various neustonic species and plastic waste.

The researchers found that there were concentrations of both plastic debris and neuston in the areas between Hawaii and California. Some of the creatures found were jellyfish-like species dubbed by-the-wind sailors and blue buttons as well as violet snails.

The research was, however, not substantive, considering only 22 photos were studied. Perhaps, studying the actual samples as opposed to pictures would have carried a lot more weight.

Helm added that using “surface tows” to collect the ocean’s contents is in its measure “an imperfect art.” There are times when TOC’s net would bounce above waves or sink deep into the water such that it misses some plastic and organism floating in the area.

Despite these shortcomings, Helm said that it was obvious from the photos that there is a significant amount of neuston present within the garbage patch.

Helm has openly criticized TOC, highlighting that the nets they use to gather plastic might accidentally trap neuston. Several of the neuston species cannot swim.

For instance, by-the-wind sailors have a tiny rigid sail to catch the wind, while blue buttons and violet snails depend on currents to float across the ocean.

These creatures are small, just like the net’s mesh. If numerous neustonic species were to die, it could affect the turtles, fish, seabirds, and other animals that feed on them.

TOC Fights Back – Says U-shaped Barrier Modified

TOC argues that it is well aware of the probable harm of its ocean cleanup activities to marine life and that it has in recent years modified the design of the U-shaped barrier that controls the plastic into the designated collection zone to sit at the far end of the net, three meters below the sea surface.

That way, the net moves slowly through the water, allowing moving species to escape and swim away.
The ships are equipped with lights and acoustic deterrents in addition to using underwater cameras to identify protected species such as turtles, which can escape through specially made hatches below the nets.

After every session, the crew has been instructed not to hoist the nets for at least an hour to allow sea creatures to escape. However, TOC admits fish, small sharks, sea turtles, and mollusks have been caught by the net, although accidentally. They are nonetheless, a tiny fraction of the plastic removed from the ocean.

TOC has also endeavored to carry out its own research in addition to capturing plastic from the water, which includes environmental impact assessments used to pinpoint and state the potential harm to marine life, but it is not obligated to publish the studies.

“We do much more than just clean, which is difficult enough. We also actively contribute to the understanding of an ecosystem that we barely know,” Matthias Egger the researcher in charge at TOC said.

Egger and his team have been regularly testing the water around the plastic cleanup system to study the tiny organisms called neuston that live on the water’s surface.

They want to understand how the cleanup process affects these creatures and if there are any changes throughout the year. The initial results show that the impact on neuston is minimal, which is good news for the researchers.

The Ocean Cleanup (TOC) project aims to clean up plastic waste without harming marine life, Egger stressed. However, it’s not as simple as just avoiding the capture of these creatures.

Some marine animals from other regions may attach themselves to plastic debris and travel to the Pacific Ocean, where they could disrupt the local ecosystem by feeding on neuston.

Deciding whether to remove these traveling species poses yet another unique challenge.

“There is always marine life associated with the plastic,” Egger added. “But very often, it’s marine life that does not belong there, because the plastic does not belong there.”

Should Plastic Be Left At Sea?

A recent study provides some insight into which traveling species could be problematic. Researchers discovered that certain species from coastal waters used plastic as a means of transport and ended up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

These species were mainly found on nets, ropes, buoys, boxes, and eel traps from the fishing industry. Some of these organisms even started reproducing in their new oceanic environment.

Marine biologist Martin Thiel explains that this isn’t surprising, as marine creatures have been known to colonize floating materials in the ocean, such as volcanic pumice, seaweed, and wood.

However, separating these organisms from the plastic is not an easy task, especially if they settle on more durable debris or float on the surface alongside it.

“What’s out there, we better leave it in peace, because by removing it, we may do more harm,” Thiel said.

TOC’s Efforts Are Commendable

Lanna Cheng, a retired professor from the University of California, San Diego, isn’t too worried about the impact of plastic removal efforts on neuston populations.

Neuston, a type of sea life, sometimes swim near plastic, while at other times they don’t. Besides, these creatures can move up and down, and storms can mix things up in the ocean.

Cheng believes that since neuston tend to gather in patches, accidentally catching them wouldn’t greatly affect their numbers.

She appreciates the efforts of organizations like TOC, which invest a lot in conducting offshore trips and provide valuable opportunities for marine biologists to collect samples.

“The surface community [of marine life] is a community that was hardly studied until plastic pollution became a problem. Part of the reason was that there was very little economic value,” she added.

However, others like Helm still have concerns, believing that studies should first prove these cleanup efforts don’t harm neuston before conducting them. Helm is open to changing her stance if these organizations can demonstrate that their efforts don’t impact ocean surface life.

“If they really do the work and demonstrate that their efforts have no impact on ocean surface life, then I will be excited to see that they took the criticism and made changes,” Helm said.

Recently, TOC has made some changes to accommodate neustonic species by extending its net barrier to 1,750 meters and increasing the mesh size in the retention zone, allowing smaller creatures like blue buttons and violet snails to pass through.

TOC’s two ships are now sailing through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, testing the updated barrier in hopes of collecting more plastic per trip. While removing plastic from the open ocean continues to be a daunting task, TOC must overcome many obstacles and learn more about the creatures living there before they can expand their operations.

“Our purpose is to help those organisms out there, but you need to make sure that the way you help is actually helping them,” says Egger. “And that’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

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