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Study shows widespread ingestion of plastic by fish, raises health concerns

March 10, 2011 |  5:27 pm

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 troubling impact floating litter is having on marine life in the far reaches of the world’s oceans.

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.

The study raises the concern that the plastic in many cases works its way through the food chain and is ingested by humans.

The study underscores a problem that has drawn increasing attention in recent years: floating marine debris—most of it discarded plastic—that has accumulated in vast, slow-moving ocean currents known as “gyres.”

While 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.

Scientists already have documented the dangers of 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.

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--Tony Barboza