This floating ocean garbage is home to a surprising amount of life from the coasts

By Nell Greenfieldboyce.

Scientists studying a giant collection of plastic trash floating in the middle of the open ocean have found some unexpected inhabitants: dozens of marine species that usually stick close to the coast.

Among the plastic debris, the researchers found all kinds of nonnative species, from anemones to worms to little crustaceans.

“To find that many coastal species on a relatively small sample size was shocking,” says Linsey Haram, a marine ecologist who did this research while working at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.

Haram and her colleagues made this discovery after examining 105 items of debris collected from an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This region between Hawaii and California has become a giant garbage soup, because currents drag in floating debris that accumulates over time.

Most of the plastic trash from there that was examined by researchers showed signs of being colonized by coastal species.

“As we started going through the plastics, it ended up that we saw coastal species on 70% of the 105 debris items,” says Haram.

Even though biologists knew that coastal species can occasionally travel on ships or floating debris, scientists had long thought that coastal species couldn’t live long-term out at sea or establish new communities there.

That’s because differences in temperature, salinity, and the available nutrients found in these two watery environments all seemed like potential deal-breakers.