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.
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?”
The commercial fishing industry had opposed the creation of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, saying that prohibiting commercial fishing in the two areas would cripple the industry. But according to Brad Sewell, oceans attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, two years after designating those protected areas, the numbers tell a different story.
Around the world, coral reefs are facing trouble. Coral bleaching, due in part to rising ocean temperatures, has stressed reefs, leaving them weakened and susceptible to disease. Now, in Florida, scientists are struggling to combat a mysterious disease that’s threatening the future of the world’s third largest coral reef.
“One of the types of organisms that seems to be affected is crustacean zooplankton, which are the main prey for many small fishes,” said Höök, whose findings were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment. “The fact that these very small organisms are consuming these microplastics, altering their growth, reproduction and survival, means there could be consequences up the food web. If zooplankton numbers decline, there may be less food available for organisms at higher trophic levels.”
But in terms of understanding how fast the Earth is warming, the key is the oceans.