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Persistent Pollutants

Ocean survey tracks rising plastic pollution

Historical records reveal that plastic debris in the North Atlantic has soared since the 1990s

by Mark Peplow, special to C&EN
April 20, 2019 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 97, ISSUE 16

 

09716-scicon7-plankton.jpg
Credit: Marine Biological Association
For decades, this plankton sampler has been dragged through Atlantic surface waters, becoming entangled in plastic debris more than 200 times.

A trawl through the records of the world’s longest-running marine ecological survey has revealed the dramatic rise in plastic debris littering the North Atlantic in recent decades (Nat. Commun. 2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-09506-1). The data were retrieved from the logs of the Continuous Plankton Recorder, which has been sampling plankton in the Atlantic since 1931. The 1 m long metal sampler is dragged along by ferries and container ships at a depth of about 7 m. From 1957 to 2016, the sampler covered more than 6.5 million nautical miles (12 million km), and operators’ records show that it was fouled by plastic debris more than 200 times. The rate of fouling by natural debris remained constant over that period, but plastic entanglements rose sharply in the 1990s and then skyrocketed in the early 2000s. Fishing gear, such as netting or lines, caused more than half of the plastic entanglements. Plastic bags were responsible for just 7% of incidents. Marine creatures such as seals and turtles spend a lot of time in surface waters and are often tangled by plastic waste in a similar way. Although previous studies have suggested that millions of metric tons of plastic waste enter the oceans every year, this is the first long-term survey to confirm that marine plastic pollution has risen significantly since the 1990s, says Clare Ostle of the Marine Biological Association, who led the work.

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