JOURNAL ARTICLE

Plastic particles in coastal pelagic ecosystems of the Northeast Pacific ocean

Miriam J Doyle, William Watson, Noelle M Bowlin, Seba B Sheavly
Marine Environmental Research 2011, 71 (1): 41-52
21093039
The purpose of this study was to examine the distribution, abundance and characteristics of plastic particles in plankton samples collected routinely in Northeast Pacific ecosystems, and to contribute to the development of ideas for future research into the occurrence and impact of small plastic debris in marine pelagic ecosystems. Plastic debris particles were assessed from zooplankton samples collected as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) ongoing ecosystem surveys during two research cruises in the Southeast Bering Sea in the spring and fall of 2006 and four research cruises off the U.S. west coast (primarily off southern California) in spring, summer and fall of 2006, and in January of 2007. Nets with 0.505 mm mesh were used to collect surface samples during all cruises, and sub-surface samples during the four cruises off the west coast. The 595 plankton samples processed indicate that plastic particles are widely distributed in surface waters. The proportion of surface samples from each cruise that contained particles of plastic ranged from 8.75 to 84.0%, whereas particles were recorded in sub-surface samples from only one cruise (in 28.2% of the January 2007 samples). Spatial and temporal variability was apparent in the abundance and distribution of the plastic particles and mean standardized quantities varied among cruises with ranges of 0.004-0.19 particles/m³, and 0.014-0.209 mg dry mass/m³. Off southern California, quantities for the winter cruise were significantly higher, and for the spring cruise significantly lower than for the summer and fall surveys (surface data). Differences between surface particle concentrations and mass for the Bering Sea and California coast surveys were significant for pair-wise comparisons of the spring but not the fall cruises. The particles were assigned to three plastic product types: product fragments, fishing net and line fibers, and industrial pellets; and five size categories: <1 mm, 1-2.5 mm, >2.5-5 mm, >5-10 mm, and >10 mm. Product fragments accounted for the majority of the particles, and most were less than 2.5 mm in size. The ubiquity of such particles in the survey areas and predominance of sizes <2.5 mm implies persistence in these pelagic ecosystems as a result of continuous breakdown from larger plastic debris fragments, and widespread distribution by ocean currents. Detailed investigations of the trophic ecology of individual zooplankton species, and their encounter rates with various size ranges of plastic particles in the marine pelagic environment, are required in order to understand the potential for ingestion of such debris particles by these organisms. Ongoing plankton sampling programs by marine research institutes in large marine ecosystems are good potential sources of data for continued assessment of the abundance, distribution and potential impact of small plastic debris in productive coastal pelagic zones.

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