We know plastics are as plentiful in parts of the open ocean as they are in our everyday lives. But, until recently, scientists didn’t consider that such debris could also be carrying a new wave of invasive species to the shores of the United States. Now they’re finding that not only is that happening, but they suspect that some of the species will thrive.
Not long after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the east coast of Japan, a surge of floating trash—shellfish cages, portions of piers, entire fishing vessels—started washing onto the West Coast of North America and Hawaii. The tsunami had dragged Japan’s plastic infrastructure out to sea, where it bobbed toward North America. (Related: Japan Tsunami: 20 Unforgettable Pictures)
Scientists largely expected the debris to land, knowing the pace and direction of ocean currents. But they didn’t know that Japanese mussels, barnacles, and sea squirts could survive for six years on a trek across the Pacific Ocean and arrive not only alive, but ready to reproduce.
“Until then, we didn’t really think these coastal organisms could survive at sea long enough to make the transit,” says Greg Ruiz, senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center’s marine invasions lab (SERC). “This showed us that they can and do—and that we should expect to see this more often as the amount of debris in the ocean continues to increase.”
Researchers collected as much of the debris as they could over the six-year period during which it continued washing onto West Coast shores. One study documented the creatures that came with the trash and found 289 Japanese species had survived the ride.
Christina Simkanin, a research biologist with SERC’s marine invasions lab, is now studying the fallout of that incremental invasion to see whether any species might establish new populations where they landed. Many of those species that arrived had not yet been introduced to the West Coast and, like any non-native, could cause harm in their new environments.
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