SAN DIEGO - Elizabeth Lopez maneuvered a massive steel claw over the side of a 134-foot sailboat and guided its descent through swaying kelp and schools of fish 10 miles off the coast of San Diego. She was hoping to catch pieces of a mysterious marine ecosystem that scientists are calling the plastisphere.
It starts with particles of degraded plastic no bigger than grains of salt. Bacteria take up residence on those tiny pieces of trash. Then single-celled animals feed on the bacteria, and larger predators feed on them. [...]
The plastisphere was six decades in the making. It's a product of the discarded plastic - flip-flops, margarine tubs, toys, toothbrushes - that gets swept from urban sewer systems and river channels into the sea. [...]
In October, Goldstein and oceanographer Deb Goodwin of the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole reported that one-third of the gooseneck barnacles they collected from the garbage patch had plastic particles in their guts. The typical fragment measured 1.4 millimeters across, not much bigger than a piece of glitter, according to their report in the journal PeerJ.
Some of the barnacles had bits of plastic in their fecal pellets too. That finding led Goldstein to speculate that some of the 256 barnacles that were plastic-free when they were captured by researchers had probably eaten plastic at some point in their lives but cleared it from their systems.
Since crabs prey on barnacles, the plastic the barnacles eat may be spreading through the food web, Goldstein and Goodwin reported.