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Local scientist studies marine life found on open-ocean trash

Ecologist Chela Zabin of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center West examines a sample of plastic netting teeming with marine life at her lab at the Estuary & Ocean Science Center in Tiburon. (Elliot Karlan photo / For The Ark)

Fishing nets and bleach bottles, cigarette butts, plastic bags and bottle caps, cups and straws. About 12 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the world’s oceans each year, researchers say.

Some of this trash congregates in huge gyres, but much of it is crushed into microplastic pieces by wave action and dispersed over thousands of miles of open sea. It can choke sea turtles, entangle whales and end up in the stomachs of deep-sea fish.

But local scientists taking a closer look at plastic retrieved from the ocean have made a remarkable discovery: It’s full of life. Marine life once thought to exist only on coastal reefs is flourishing in the open ocean with the help of man-made trash.

“It’s like a floating shoreline that humans have created with our waste products,” said Chela Zabin, an ecologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center West in Tiburon. “It’s just amazing to look at a little piece of plastic and see there’s a whole world there.”

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