Deep Sea Trash Revealed with ROVs: Debris Discovered 7000 Feet Below (Video)

First Posted: Jun 06, 2013 10:43 AM EDT

Deep beneath the ocean's waves, strange creatures such as rockfish and gorgonian coral thrive in the icy depths. Yet there's something else you'll find if you go searching beneath the sea: trash, and lots of it. Researchers have discovered that our trash is accumulating in the deep sea, particularly in Monterey Canyon off of the coast of California.

Scientists knew that trash was affecting shallower depths--about 1,000 feet beneath the water. Yet they were unsure whether the effects extended to the truly deep parts of the ocean that reached up to 13,000 feet. They decided that there was only one way to find out: look for themselves.

In order to see exactly what was down on the bottom of the sea floor, the researchers combed through 18,000 hours of underwater video collected by MBARI's remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Over the past 22 years, technicians in MBARI's video lab recorded virtually every object and animal that appeared in these videos. This allowed the scientists to examine exactly what was located thousands of feet beneath the waves.

If you had the ability to withstand the great pressures and cold temperatures of the deep ocean, like the ROVs, you'd see some surprising, and disturbing, images. You'd be able to witness a discarded tire sitting on a ledge 2,850 feet beneath the surface. You'd be able to see a plastic bag wrapping around a deep-sea gorgonian coral almost 7,000 feet below the water and you'd spot young rockfish hiding in discarded items, such as old shoes.

In fact, the researchers counted over 1,500 observations of deep-sea debris at dive sites that ranged from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of California, and as far west as the Hawaiian Islands. In this latest study, though, the researchers focused on the debris in and around Monterey bay--and found over 1,150 pieces of trash.

"I was surprised that we saw so much trash in deeper water," said Kyra Schlining, lead author of the study, in a news release. "We don't usually think of our daily activities as affecting life two miles deep in the ocean. I'm sure that there's a lot more debris in the canyon that we're not seeing. A lot of it gets buried by underwater landslides and sediment movement. Some of it may also be carried into deeper water, farther down the canyon."

Yet not all locations in the canyon had trash. Instead, debris seemed to accumulate on steep, rocky slopes, such as on the edges of Monterey Canyon. It's possible that the trash accumulates where ocean currents flow past rocky outcrops or other obstacles.

While trash can cause major issues for sea life, it may be even worse for creatures in the deep ocean. Near-freezing water, lack of sunlight and low oxygen concentrations discourage the growth of bacteria and other organisms that can break down debris. This means that items like soda cans and plastic bags could remain on the ocean floor for decades.

Currently, the researchers are planning on doing additional researchers to understand the long-term impacts of this trash. In fact, they're finishing up a detailed study of a particular large piece of marine debris--a shipping container that fell off of a ship in 2004.

The findings are published in the journal Oceanographic Research Papers.

Want to see images of the deep ocean yourself? Check out the video below, courtesy of YouTube.

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