Litter in the Deep

Our trash has invaded every nook, cranny and corner of the planet. Recently researchers have begun to recognize that the deep sea is likely a huge sink for marine litter. We know so little about the environment down there as it is, so how can we discern how marine litter is screwing it up?

Trash has beaten us to the deepest, darkest and most mysterious part of our planet. As researchers comb through footage from previously unexplored areas of the deep, they are finding trash, and lots of it.

Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) have gone through 22 years of video from the Monterey Bay Canyon, and looked for trash. Having covered only 0.24% of the sea floor in the Monterey Bay, they identified 1537 pieces of trash.

Trash found in the Monterey Bay Canyon. Schlining et al (2017).

The Monterey Canyon is one of the best studied, deep sea canyons in the world, and the area supports a thriving fishing, tourist and agriculture industry, all which might play a role in the amount of marine litter, but it is also bordered by two of the most environmentally conscious counties in California.

Based on this research, there is reason to believe that millions of tons of our trash is now sitting at the bottom of the ocean. The ecology of deep sea habitats are very fragile, and might take centuries to recover from damage. Trash will also persist in the deep much longer than in surface waters because of the lack of UV light (which breaks up plastic polymers) the lack of colonizers and the stability of the environment.

Read the journal article here.


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