2013-11-01

Co.Exist

These Big-Eyed Fish Are Vacuuming Up Our Plastic Pollution At Night

We can't find as much plastic in the ocean as there should be. It's still in the ocean—it's just hiding in the guts of the lanternfish.

Much of the plastic we produce on land ends up contaminating the sea. But when researchers went searching for a global picture of all the plastics stuck swirling around the gyres, they found that a massive amount—perhaps as much as 99%—was missing.

A tiny fish with a nightly fix for plastic may be one of the culprits.

As University of Western Australia Oceans Institute director Carlos Duarte explained in a lecture for the university's Inquiring Minds series, he and PhD student Julia Reiser anticipated they'd find plastics in excess of a million metric tons after sampling waters off the Australian coast and the world's five major gyres, or vortexes of ocean currents. Instead, they only found 10,000 to 30,000 metric tons.

"It's not that we weren't happy to find that little amount of plastic, but it's much less than we thought we would find," Duarte said. "This doesn't mean that plastic isn't being produced or released. It means that plastic is being lost at sea somewhere."

Duarte listed three possible ways in which the plastic might be hiding. The first could be that plastics are broken down by the sun into parts so spectacularly tiny that they weren't detected by the team's equipment. Another option could be bacteria beginning to feast on the particles. But Duarte and Reiser found that one size of plastic, bits to two to three centimeters long, was notably absent from their samples.

Curiously, that kind of plastic fits the fish food profile for the lanternfish, a small glow-in-the-dark organism with huge eyes that rises from depths of 500 to 700 meters at night to eat, then returns below to avoid predators during the day. "The size of the prey they eat is exactly the size of the plastic we're missing," Duarte said.

The lanternfish is also one of the most populous animals in the sea. Representing some 660 million tons of fish, it's estimated that the species could make up the majority of the ocean's living biomass.

And their guts could be one of the final resting places for all our discarded iPhone cases. When researchers cut the lanternfish open, they found evidence of the missing pieces.

[Image via Wikipedia]

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5 Comments

  • Cruella

    Folks, if you want a scientific article, go to a scientific journal and leave this poor girl alone.

  • willshome

    If you're going to write about science, facts are rather important – wherever you're writing it.

  • anaphysik

    "Representing some 660 million tons of fish, it's estimated that the
    species could make up the majority of the ocean's living biomass."

    Incorrect. Lanternfish are an entire family, not a single species. As far as individual species go, antarctic krill lead the biomass charts (for animals, mind you) at approx. 500 million tons.

  • Stiv Wilson

    Could? You need to do some research! 10% of mesopelagic fish have evidence of ingestion of plastics according to Scripps Institute of Oceanagraphy. But totally inaccurate to say that the concentration of plastics in the gyre is 'much less' than should be expect because fish are eating. This is a really misleading piece and whoever your sources are, they're not people who understand how plastic manifests in the gyres. Really surprised how myopic their view is, and frankly, the writer's.

  • Francis Gonzales

    "It's still in the ocean--it's just hiding in the guts of the laternfish." Just a friendly note that lanternfish is misspelled.

    Also, the article ended pretty abruptly. Have they done any tests on lanternfish to see how common it is for them to have plastic in their stomachs? What sort of impact does this have on the fish, the fish that eat them, etc.?