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Deep-Sea Garbage Caught on Video

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A Coke bottle with Asian lettering was observed at Davidson Seamount, 60 miles offshore and 5,666 feet below the ocean surface. (MBARI/NOAA)

This Korean Coke bottle was observed at Davidson Seamount, 60 miles offshore and 5,666 feet below the ocean surface. (MBARI/NOAA)

We’ve all heard about the problem of trash in the oceans and seen photos of the Pacific Garbage patch and other plastic “gyres,” which coat hundreds of thousands of square ocean miles with plastic flotsam.

But what happens to the heavy stuff?

New research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute shows that trash is also accumulating in the deep sea, as much as two and a half miles beneath the ocean surface. And there’s video to prove it.

MBARI researchers reviewed 18,000 hours of video footage collected by the Institute’s remote operated submarines, or ROVs, over the past 22 years. They found 1,500 observations of garbage, spotted between between Vancouver Island and the Gulf of California, and as far west as Hawaii.

About a third of the garbage was made of plastic, and half of that consisted of plastic bags.

Deep-sea currents wrapped this plastic bag around a deep-sea gorgonian coral almost 7,000 feet below the ocean surface in Astoria Canyon, off the Coast of Oregon. (MBARI)

Deep-sea currents wrapped this plastic bag around a deep-sea gorgonian coral almost 7,000 feet below the ocean surface in Astoria Canyon, off the Coast of Oregon. (MBARI)

Other frequent finds: rope, glass bottles and cloth. Several times, researchers found marine animals trapped in old fishing equipment.

This beer can found its final resting place 8,445 feet underwater, off the coast of Central California. (MBARI)

This beer can found its final resting place 8,445 feet underwater, off the coast of Central California. (MBARI)

In one case, an entire shipping container came to rest on the sea floor about 12 miles outside Monterey Bay. MBARI estimates about 10,000 containers topple off ships a year and become part of the permanent deep sea-scape. (MBARI researchers are now finishing up a study of how these containers affect the ocean environment.)

Pieces of cardboard on the seafloor, almost two and a half miles deep. (MBARI

Pieces of cardboard on the seafloor, almost two and a half miles deep. (MBARI

Researchers say that while it’s theoretically possible to do some clean-up, it’d be much better to keep the stuff from getting there in the first place.

A discarded tire sits on a ledge 2,850 feet below the ocean surface in Monterey Canyon. (MBARI)

A discarded tire sits on a ledge 2,850 feet below the ocean surface in Monterey Canyon. (MBARI)

“The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw — glass, metal, paper, plastic — could be recycled,” notes MBARI’s Kyra Schlining, the study’s lead author.

This 55-gallon drum was observed on seafloor 9,488 feet deep in Monterey Canyon. (MBARI)

This 55-gallon drum was observed on seafloor 9,488 feet deep in Monterey Canyon. (MBARI)

This crab trap was found in Astoria Canyon, off the coast of Oregon, at a depth of 3,580 feet. (MBARI)

This crab trap was found in Astoria Canyon, off the coast of Oregon, at a depth of 3,580 feet. (MBARI)

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Category: Biology, Environment, News, Water

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About the Author ()

As a radio reporter for KQED Science, Amy's grappled with archaic maps, brain fitness exercises, albino redwood trees, and jet-lagged lab rats, as well as modeled a wide variety of hard hats and construction vests. Long before all that, she learned to cut actual tape interning for a Latin American news show at WBAI in New York, then took her first radio job as a producer for Pulse of the Planet. Since then, Amy has been an editor at Salon.com, the editor of Terrain Magazine, and has produced stories for NPR, Living on Earth, Philosophy Talk, and Pop Up Magazine. She's also a founding editor of Meatpaper Magazine.