Beaches in the South Atlantic Ocean are seeing a major spike in plastic pollution along with foreign species, researchers say.
These islands, including Ascension, St. Helena, and the Falkland Islands, are considered biodiversity hotspots and researchers are concerned that the massive amount of plastic waste not only poses a risk to sea life that may consume microplastics or choke on plastic fragments — it is also introducing invasive species and disrupting entire ecosystems.
These foreign species, which may travel on plastic waste, range from microbes and algaes to larger sea creatures like crabs, shrimp, and barnacles, and can survive for years at sea before landing in new environments across the ocean. Even iguanas have been spotted floating on plastic waste, the Independent reports.
"Lots of things can settle on [plastic waste], native and non-native, and anything that settles anywhere can travel anywhere — because as we know plastics have been picked up that have travelled the world ocean, they can go anywhere," Dr. David Barnes, who led the recent study at the British Antarctic Survey, told the Independent.
"It's all very well saying we have got this massive marine protected area around the UK overseas territories ... But ultimately that doesn't deal with any of this threat," Dr. Barnes said.
The team identified plastic waste at the bottom of the sea around the islands and along the beaches.
Up to 300 pieces of plastic waste per meter of shoreline were found on East Falkland and St. Helena, including in areas that have been designated for special protection, according to the study.
New BAS-led research shows the amount of plastic washing up onto the shores of remote South Atlantic islands is 10 times greater than it was a decade ago. Find out more here: https://t.co/04yzZKtKCspic.twitter.com/p4uXr1XBGq— Antarctic Survey (@BAS_News) October 8, 2018
"These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet's health. It is heart-breaking watching albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere," Dr. Andy Schofield, a biologist from the RSPB, who was also involved in the research told the Independent.
"This is a very big wake-up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health," he said.
The South Atlantic is not the only region seeing a surge in plastic waste and invasive species lately. Nearly 300 non-native species have traveled between Japan and the West Coast of the United States via floating trash, according to a study.
To address the plastic crisis on the British islands and across the globe, industry and communities must work together to prevent plastic from entering the oceans.