The World's Largest Undersea Survey Finds Human Junk Everywhere On The Ocean Floor

A Philippine boy picks plastic waste from floating rubbish in Manila, Philippines. Getty Images

Human rubbish has worked its way into even the remotest and most inaccessible parts of the planet.

This is confirmed in a large-scale seafloor survey off the European coast which found widespread presence of bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets and other types of human litter.

The scientists analysed nearly 600 seafloor areas over 10 years and found rubbish at all depths from 35 metres to 4.5 kilometres, with plastics accounting for the largest proportion.

Marine litter has been documented to cause problems for marine mammals and fish when mistaken for food and eaten, or else when it entangles coral and fish.

Scientists used photos, videos and trawling to survey or collect seafloor litter. They classified the litter into six categories, including plastic, fishing gear, metal, glass, clinker and other.

Litter was found at all surveyed locations, ranging from coastal seas to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, 2,000 kilometres from land.

Rubbish was found at all depths, from shallow, 35-meter waters in the Gulf of Lion to 4,500-metre waters in Cascais Canyon, Portugal.

The highest litter density was in submarine canyons and the lowest density on continental shelves and on ocean ridges.

Plastics accounted for 41% of litter and derelict fishing gear 34%. Glass, metal, wood, paper, cardboard, clothing and pottery were also found.

Plastic, glass, cans, fishing gear on the seafloor of European Waters. Credit: Pham CK et al

Co-author Dr Kerry Howell of Plymouth University says the survey shows human litter is present in all marine habitats, from beaches to the most remote and deepest parts of the oceans.

“Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans, and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us,” Dr Howell says.

Christopher Pham from University of the Azores says: “The large quantity of litter reaching the deep ocean floor is a major issue worldwide. Our results highlight the extent of the problem and the need for action to prevent increasing accumulation of litter in marine environments.”

The results of the survey are published in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Christopher Pham and colleagues from 15 other institutions.

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