Concept: North Pacific Gyre
Ocean plastic can persist in sea surface waters, eventually accumulating in remote areas of the world’s oceans. Here we characterise and quantify a major ocean plastic accumulation zone formed in subtropical waters between California and Hawaii: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Our model, calibrated with data from multi-vessel and aircraft surveys, predicted at least 79 (45-129) thousand tonnes of ocean plastic are floating inside an area of 1.6 million km2; a figure four to sixteen times higher than previously reported. We explain this difference through the use of more robust methods to quantify larger debris. Over three-quarters of the GPGP mass was carried by debris larger than 5 cm and at least 46% was comprised of fishing nets. Microplastics accounted for 8% of the total mass but 94% of the estimated 1.8 (1.1-3.6) trillion pieces floating in the area. Plastic collected during our study has specific characteristics such as small surface-to-volume ratio, indicating that only certain types of debris have the capacity to persist and accumulate at the surface of the GPGP. Finally, our results suggest that ocean plastic pollution within the GPGP is increasing exponentially and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters.
Plastic debris has been documented in many marine ecosystems, including remote coastlines, the water column, the deep sea, and subtropical gyres. The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG), colloquially called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” has been an area of particular scientific and public concern. However, quantitative assessments of the extent and variability of plastic in the NPSG have been limited. Here, we quantify the distribution, abundance, and size of plastic in a subset of the eastern Pacific (approximately 20-40°N, 120-155°W) over multiple spatial scales. Samples were collected in Summer 2009 using surface and subsurface plankton net tows and quantitative visual observations, and Fall 2010 using surface net tows only. We documented widespread, though spatially variable, plastic pollution in this portion of the NPSG and adjacent waters. The overall median microplastic numerical concentration in Summer 2009 was 0.448 particles m(-2) and in Fall 2010 was 0.021 particles m(-2), but plastic concentrations were highly variable over the submesoscale (10 s of km). Size-frequency spectra were skewed towards small particles, with the most abundant particles having a cross-sectional area of approximately 0.01 cm(2). Most microplastic was found on the sea surface, with the highest densities detected in low-wind conditions. The numerical majority of objects were small particles collected with nets, but the majority of debris surface area was found in large objects assessed visually. Our ability to detect high-plastic areas varied with methodology, as stations with substantial microplastic did not necessarily also contain large visually observable objects. A power analysis of our data suggests that high variability of surface microplastic will make future changes in abundance difficult to detect without substantial sampling effort. Our findings suggest that assessment and monitoring of oceanic plastic debris must account for high spatial variability, particularly in regards to the evaluation of initiatives designed to reduce marine debris.