Most of the trash in the ocean comes from land, and most of it is plastic. An estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic leaves the shorelines into the ocean globally each year, and there are now over 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in the ocean currently.
According to Rebecca Vega Thurber, an associate professor of environmental microbiology at Oregon State University, who was not involved in the study, “What’s really exciting about this paper is the really strong correspondence between this temperature anomaly that occurred during that year when the sea stars started dying.”
Everywhere the warming went, the sunflower stars sickened and died.
The study showed a correlation between warming temperatures and the spread of the disease, not a direct cause. But it corroborates a hypothesis that was initially questioned because the virus that researchers think is responsible also shows up in healthy sea stars.
As the oceans continue to heat up, those effects will become more catastrophic, scientists say. Rainier, more powerful storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018 will become more common, and coastlines around the world will flood more frequently. Coral reefs, whose fish populations are sources of food for hundreds of millions of people, will come under increasing stress; a fifth of all corals have already died in the past three years.
The Ocean Cleanup, which has raised $35 million in donations to fund the project, including from Salesforce.com chief executive Marc Benioff and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, will deploy 60 free-floating barriers in the Pacific Ocean by 2020.
She says understanding how plastic gets into fish matters not just to the fish, but to us. “We eat fish that eat plastic,” she says. “Are there things that transfer to the tissue? Does the plastic itself transfer to the tissue? Do the chemicals associated with the plastic transfer to the tissue?”
One surprise in their findings, Murawski said, was that the part of the gulf with the lowest diversity of fish species is the area of the gulf with the greatest number of offshore oil rigs.
“They’ve had 50 to 60 years of oil development there,” he said. “So that may be one of the at-risk areas” in case of a future oil spill. A disaster like Deepwater Horizon could more easily wipe out the fish living there to the point where they could not bounce back, he explained.