There are several nonprofit organizations working to remove floating plastic from the Great Pacific Patch. The largest, the Ocean Cleanup Foundation in the Netherlands, developed a net specifically to collect and concentrate marine debris as it is pulled across the sea’s surface by winds and currents. Once the net is full, a ship takes its contents to land for proper disposal.
Dr. Helm and other scientists warn that such nets threaten sea life, including neuston. Although adjustments to the net’s design have been made to reduce bycatch, Dr. Helm believes any large-scale removal of plastic from the patch could pose a threat to its neuston inhabitants.
“When it comes to figuring out what to do about the plastic that’s already in the ocean, I think we need to be really careful,” she said. The results of her study “really emphasize the need to study the open ocean before we try to manipulate it, modify it, clean it up or extract minerals from it.”
Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup Foundation, disagreed with Dr. Helm.
“It’s too early to reach any conclusions on how we should react to that study,” he said. “You have to take into account the effects of plastic pollution on other species. We are collecting several tons of plastic every week with our system — plastic that is affecting the environment.”
Plastic in the ocean poses a threat to marine life, killing more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals, according to UNESCO. Everything from fish to whales can become entangled, and animals often mistake it for food and end up starving to death with stomachs full of plastic.
Ocean plastics that don’t end up asphyxiating an albatross or entangling an elephant seal eventually break down into microplastics, which penetrate every branch of the food web and are nearly impossible to remove from the environment.
One thing everyone agrees on is that we need to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean.
“We need to turn off the tap,” Mr. Lecomte said.