Island paradise sinking in a sea of plastic

Scientists have discovered that a beach on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific is strewn with nearly 38 million pieces of plastic, transported there by powerful ocean currents. By 2050, there could be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Henderson Island is littered with an estimated 37.7 million pieces of plastic. (Image credit: Jennifer Lavers)

Few islands are as remote and isolated as the Pitcairn Islands. Located in the South Pacific, some 5,000 kilometres away from New Zealand and around 5,700 kilometres from South America, they are a place where time itself seems to slow down.

Only one of the islands of the British overseas territory, Pitcairn itself, is inhabited – by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers and the Tahitians who accompanied them. Others like Henderson Island are so remote that they are only visited by researchers every five to ten years.

Henderson Island seems like a pristine paradise at first sight: white sandy beaches, palm trees, deep blue water. But during their most recent visit to the island, a group of researchers were confronted by the massive scale to which humans are polluting our oceans.

Nearly 700 pieces of plastic per square metre

The researchers discovered 37.1 million pieces of plastic on the island’s sandy beaches, the highest density of plastic debris reported anywhere on the planet. Jennifer Lavers, a conservationist at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, counted 671 items per square metre.

“What’s happened on Henderson Island shows there’s no escaping plastic pollution even in the most distant parts of our oceans,” Dr Lavers said.

“Far from being the pristine ‘deserted island’ that people might imagine of such a remote place, Henderson Island is a shocking but typical example of how plastic debris is affecting the environment on a global scale.”

Garbage patch as large as Central Europe

Located near the centre of the South Pacific Gyre ocean current makes Henderson Island a focal point for debris carried from South America or tossed overboard fishing boats.

Based on their sampling, the researchers estimate that more than 3,570 new pieces of litter are washing up each day on one beach alone.

Henderson Island is sadly not alone in this regard.

Marine scientists have long established that tens of thousands of plastic waste are floating in every square kilometre of ocean. Larger plastic pieces often drift together in massive gyres. One such gyre in the North Pacific is now said to be large as Central Europe.

Jeopardising marine life

Especially problematic is that the plastic disintegrates into smaller pieces that are ingested by seabirds, turtles, jellyfish and fish – which in turn often die in agony. Small plastic particles have even been detected in mussels, according to WWF.

“Research has shown that more than 200 species are known to be at risk from eating plastic, and 55 per cent of the world’s seabirds, including two species found on Henderson Island, are at risk from marine debris,” Dr Lavers said.

These miniature pieces are also without doubt found in the water around Henderson Island, but were too small for the researchers to record on their recent visit.

“It’s likely that our data actually underestimates the true amount of debris on Henderson Island as we were only able to sample pieces bigger than two millimetres down to a depth of 10 centimetres.”

More plastic than fish

In some parts of the world, there are already six times more plastic than plankton in the seawater. If this trend continues, there could be more plastic pieces than fish in the oceans by 2050, according to a 2016 study.

Lavers puts the blame for this on the shoulders of society: more than 300 million tonnes of plastic produced worldwide each year is not recycled, making it easy for it to find its way into the oceans and ultimately to uninhabited – but not longer untouched – islands.

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