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Small fish are ingesting plastic in Pacific garbage gyre

March 10, 2011 |  3:11 pm

Ocean garbage Southern California researchers have found evidence of widespread ingestion of plastic among small fish in the northern Pacific Ocean in a study they say shows the widespread impact of floating litter on the food chain.

About 35% of the fish collected on a 2008 research expedition off the U.S. West Coast had plastic in their stomachs, according to a study to be presented Friday by the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project.

The fish, on average, ingested two pieces of plastic, but scientists who dissected hundreds of plankton-eating lantern fish found as many as 83 plastic fragments in a single fish.

Floating marine debris — most of it discarded plastic — has accumulated in vast, slow-moving ocean currents known as “gyres.” Researchers worry that the ingested plastic can kill marine life or work its way up the food chain to humans.

Though discarded bottles, containers and fishing line are slowly broken down into small fragments by pounding waves and sunlight, scientists don’t know if they ever totally dissolve.

Researchers already have documented the immediate threats posed by floating trash to turtles, seabirds and marine mammals that eat or become entangled in the litter, but researchers said this study was the first to try to quantify the effect on the smaller fish.

For the study, researchers trawled 1,000 miles off the coast for fish living among floating debris particles in an area of the ocean known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. They dissected and analyzed the fish at a lab in Costa Mesa.

The vast majority of fish they found were lantern fish, deep-sea dwellers that come to the surface after dark to feast on plankton. Lantern fish are the most common fish in the ocean and a food source for such popular game fish as tuna and mahi mahi, both of which are caught for human consumption.

“As the larger pieces of plastic break down, they mimic the size, shape and texture of natural food,” said Charles Moore, the founder of Algalita and an author of the study. “What we're seeing is the entire food web being contaminated by plastic.”

The study was published in the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin. The authors plan to share the findings Friday at the Plastics Are Forever International Youth Summit in Long Beach, where teenagers from around the United States and 13 countries are gathering to share ideas for how to combat plastic pollution.

The research also will be presented later this month at the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference in Honolulu.

-- Tony Barboza

Photo:Tons of garbage that swept down the Los Angeles River after a storm is corralled by a boom in Long Beach. Most trash runoff ends up in the sea, joining more floating debris from ships - nets, gear, even cargo containers. Credit: Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times

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