Floating clot of plastic plagues Atlantic: Decaying debris endangers wildlife

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Researchers are warning of a new blight at sea: a swirl of confetti-like plastic debris stretching over a remote expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. The floating garbage -- hard to spot from the surface and spun together by a vortex of currents -- was documented by two groups of scientists who trawled the sea between Bermuda and the Azores.

The studies describe a soup of micro-particles similar to the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a phenomenon discovered a decade ago between Hawaii and California that researchers say probably also exists in other places around the globe.

The debris is harmful for fish, sea mammals and, at the top of the food chain, potentially humans, even though much of the plastic has broken into such tiny pieces they are nearly invisible.

Anna Cummins and Marcus Eriksen, affiliated with the nonprofit marine research and education organization Algalita, sailed from Bermuda to the Azores, taking samples every 100 miles. Each time they pulled up the trawl, it was full of plastic.

Another study, by undergraduates with the Sea Education Association, collected more than 6,000 samples on trips between Canada and the Caribbean over two decades. Lead investigator and SEA faculty member Kara Lavender Law said the highest concentrations of plastics were found between 22 and 38 degrees north latitude, an area that runs roughly between Cuba and Washington.

Long trails of seaweed, mixed with bottles, crates and other flotsam, drift in the still waters of the area. But the most nettlesome trash is nearly invisible: countless specks of plastic, often smaller than pencil erasers, suspended near the surface of the Atlantic.

-- Associated Press

© 2010 The Washington Post Company