We’ve all heard about the problem of trash in the oceans and seen photos of the Pacific Garbage patch and other plastic “gyres,” which coat hundreds of thousands of square ocean miles with plastic flotsam.
But what happens to the heavy stuff?
New research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute shows that trash is also accumulating in the deep sea, as much as two and a half miles beneath the ocean surface. And there's video to prove it.
MBARI researchers reviewed 18,000 hours of video footage collected by the Institute’s remote operated submarines, or ROVs, over the past 22 years. They found 1,500 observations of garbage, spotted between between Vancouver Island and the Gulf of California, and as far west as Hawaii.
About a third of the garbage was made of plastic, and half of that consisted of plastic bags.
Other frequent finds: rope, glass bottles and cloth. Several times, researchers found marine animals trapped in old fishing equipment.
In one case, an entire shipping container came to rest on the sea floor about 12 miles outside Monterey Bay. MBARI estimates about 10,000 containers topple off ships a year and become part of the permanent deep sea-scape. (MBARI researchers are now finishing up a study of how these containers affect the ocean environment.)
Researchers say that while it’s theoretically possible to do some clean-up, it’d be much better to keep the stuff from getting there in the first place.
"The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw — glass, metal, paper, plastic — could be recycled," notes MBARI’s Kyra Schlining, the study’s lead author.