Do efforts to clean the ocean of plastic pollution also threaten species?
While the plastic pollution crisis clearly must be addressed, plans to remove plastics from the ocean may cause more environmental destruction.
The islands of plastic floating in our oceans are an environmental nightmare. These floating rafts of trash strangle sea life and contribute to pervasive microplastic pollution. The largest of these islands is located off the coast of California and has a cumulative area that is twice the size of Texas! As our recycling system falters and our use of plastic continues to grow, it is obvious we need a solution.
Unfortunately, the technology we have may cause more harm than good by disturbing a delicate ecosystem called the neuston. A recent article in the Atlantic brought to light these concerns. These are organisms that live near the surface of the ocean. This ecosystem is poorly studied and the effects of cleanup efforts are difficult to estimate. Reckless activity could cause extinctions of species not yet known to science. It is essential that we research and protect these unique communities.
What is the Neuston?
Neuston describes the communities of organisms that spend parts of their life near the water’s surface. This includes species directly on the surface (epineuston) as well as those just below the surface (hyponeuston.)
The neuston is a poorly understood ecosystem. They are floating islands of life. They exist independently from any land or anchor. Instead they form their own floating raft made up of strange species. These include snails, jellyfish and polyps.
Neuston exist in the most remote reaches of our planet. They form islands of life that provide essential resources to marine animals and this community acts like a floating coral reef. It provides protection, feeding grounds and nurseries for various species.
This raft appears similar to plastic. It is translucent, flexible and floats. Its similarity to plastic means nets and similar techniques will not be able to distinguish neuston from plastic.
Neuston supports many unique species
The number of species that inhabit the neuston is not known, but they are certainly dense with life. Many of these creatures have a striking and unusual appearance. Some are bright blues or pinks, others glow with bioluminescence.
Here are some of the most interesting species present in the neuston.
- Blue Buttons (Porpita)
- By-The-Wind Sailors (Velella)
- Blue Sea Dragons (nudibranchs)
- Portuguese man-o’-wars (Physalia physalis)
The effects of The Ocean Cleanup on neuston is unclear
The Ocean Cleanup is an organization that aims to minimize the effects of plastic pollution in the ocean. They have created a huge machine that autonomously cleans plastic out of the ocean. This is done using a 600 meter long net that drags 3 meters deep. This system is being deployed in the areas with the greatest density of trash, such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The concerns surrounding this effort come from the similarities between the neuston ecosystem and plastic trash. Both float free on the surface of the ocean, moved by the same currents and waves. This raises concerns that cleaning up substantial amounts of the plastic in our oceans would also kill most of the neuston. This would be a tragic loss of an ecosystem that we have not yet learned much about.
Because so little is known about neuston, it is difficult to say what the effects will be. The Ocean Cleanup did an environmental impact assessment that acknowledged the presence of many neuston species. The independent marine biologists who wrote the study did not conclude that this activity would pose a major risk to these species.
Other scientists are less sure that The Ocean Project can achieve its goals. Concerns about the effectiveness and safety of this project have been raised many times.
Are the risks worth it?
Cleaning plastics from the ocean is a noble goal. The floating islands of trash are huge environmental threats. They can kill marine species that try to feed on plastics, or simply swim too close. They also put toxic chemicals into the food chain, eventually reaching humans. As the amount of waste we produce continues to explode, it is essential that we start combating this problem soon.
With this in mind, The Ocean Cleanup’s project should not be written off. In their response to the Atlantic article, they addressed many of the concerns in the Atlantic article. They are confident that this effort will improve these ecosystems and protect the ocean.
The Ocean Cleanup is only working in the parts of the ocean with the most trash. This is a fraction of the potential neustom habitat. Whether neustom accumulates in similar ways to plastic trash is not known. However, some species have been found only in the areas of trash accumulation.
Neuston is known to experience high mortality naturally. Neuston can only survive in relatively still areas of the ocean. When they float outside these safety zones, they quickly die. Many neuston species ride waves onto beaches. They reproduce quickly and aggressively to combat this. This may mean that the efforts of The Ocean Cleanup will not significantly harm neuston. However, the many different species in these ecosystems are sure to respond differently. Some less robust species may not survive. The continuous nature of The Ocean Cleanup is also different from natural disturbances.
The lack of research into these ecosystems makes it impossible to predict the real world effects. The Ocean Cleanup is, however, providing new knowledge into this topic. They are monitoring the progress of the ocean cleanup and its effects. By providing a study site and access to this location, a better understanding of neuston may be possible.
Neuston is an intriguing and unique ecosystem. The species living in it are extremely important. It is essential that research into the conservation of these species continues. The effects of The Ocean Cleanup are yet to be seen, but need to be watched. Protecting these species cannot be ignored in order to remedy our past mistakes.