for National Geographic News
Look under a chunk of plastic afloat in the ocean and you're likely to spot a fish or two. But look inside the stomach of a dead albatross or sea turtle and you're likely to find chunks of plastic.
So goes the paradoxical legacy of plastic debris in the ocean.
Carl Safina is a marine conservationist who has traveled the world's oceans and documented the effects of plastic on marine life.
This past fall, on a research cruise in the remote Pacific Ocean off the coast of Central America, he and his colleagues encountered floating trash serving as habitat for small fish and other marine organisms.
"For reasons not clearly understood, almost any floating object attracts fish that are using it either as cover or some way of being oriented or staying in certain drift lines," said Safina, who co-founded the Blue Ocean Institute in Cold Springs Harbor, New York.
The animals, he noted, likely treat the floating debris as driftwood.
"There's a whole bunch of animals who are evolved to use, and in some cases rely on, driftwood," he said.
Floating trash is as common today as driftwood, and fish and barnacles have adapted to it, he noted.
Charles Moore is the founder of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, California, and an expert on the accumulation of plastic debris in the ocean.
He said the habitat that plastic debris offers some marine organisms is far outweighed by the negative, and growing, consequences of the trash.
Moore explained that, unlike driftwood, plastic doesn't degrade as it slowly drifts around the ocean.
He added that research conducted by David Barnes, a marine scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has found that floating plastic has more than doubled the spread of invasive species.
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