The Great Northern Pacific Garbage Patch

The patch is a floating accumulation of plastic garbage about the size of Texas.  It’s found in the Pacific between Oregon and the Hawaiian Islands.

In 2009, graduate students at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego investigated the North Pacific Ocean Subtropical Gyre.  They documented a disheartening amount of human-generated trash, mostly consisting of fingernail-sized plastics.

A marine insect, the sea skater, is related to the common pond skater and normally lays its eggs on natural surfaces, such as seabird feathers, tar lumps and pumice.  Increasingly, they’re using the influx of plastic garbage as sites on which to lay their eggs.

This shift from using natural to plastic surfaces for egg laying has direct consequences for crabs, which prey on sea skaters and their eggs.

The Scripps researchers published a study last year in Marine Ecology Progress showing that 9% of the fish collected from the Garbage Patch had plastic waste in their stomachs.  The study estimates that fish found in the intermediate ocean depths of the North Pacific ingest plastic at a rate of 12,000 to 24,000 tons per year.

A dead Northern Fulmar

About 260 species of marine animals, including turtles, fish and seabirds, are know to entangle themselves in plastic or to eat it.  Albatrosses, petrels and fulmars are some of the most extreme plastic accumulators, primarily because they’re surface feeders and confuse the plastic with food.

In 1980, the University of Alaska conducted the first study of plastic ingestion by seabirds and found that 58% of the birds collected between 1969 and 1977 had consumed plastic.

A current study headed by researcher Stephanie Avery-Gomm of the University of British Columbia dissected Northern Fulmars that had washed up on beaches in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Nearly 93% of the fulmars’ bellies contained plastic, with one bird’s belly containing 454 pieces of plastic.

The birds can’t regurgitate the plastic, which can directly kill them or cause gastrointestinal blockage, lacerations and reduced feeding leading to stunted growth and starvation.

“Anything that gets into a river, anything that gets into the sewage system, anything that ends up on a beach is probably headed straight for the ocean,” Avery-Gomm says.

The team chose to study fulmars because they eat only in the water over a large migratory range and are not particular about what they eat.  If plastic’s there, they’ll eat it.

“Like the canary in the coal mine, Northern Fulmars are sentinels of plastic pollution in our oceans,” Avery-Gomm added.  “Their stomach content provides a ‘snapshot’ sample of plastic pollution from a large area of the northern Pacific Ocean.”

To learn more about the formation of a garbage patch, go to

Sources:  Discovery News,  July 11, 2012     Deep Green,  May 9, 2012   Northwest Nature Notes,  July 9, 2012        The Huffington Post, Canada    July 24, 2012      Study published in Biology Letters, May 9, 2012


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