Drifting plastic and its consequences for sessile organism dispersal in the Atlantic Ocean
Organisms have travelled the Atlantic Ocean as neuston and have rafted on natural marine debris for millions of years. Shipping increased opportunities for marine organism travel mere thousands of years ago but in just decades floating plastic debris is transforming marine rafting. Here we present a combined open-ocean and remote coasts marine debris survey of the Atlantic (from 68°S–78°N). Daily shipboard observations were made from the Southern Ocean to the high Arctic and the shores of 16 remote islands were surveyed. We report (1) anthropogenic debris from the most northerly and southerly latitudes to date, (2) the first record of marine biota colonising debris at latitudes >68°, and (3) the finding of exotic species (the barnacle Elminius modestus) on northern plastic debris. Plastic pieces dominated both open-ocean and stranding marine debris. The highest densities of oceanic debris were found around northwest Europe, whereas the highest stranding levels were equatorial. Our findings of high east-Arctic debris colonisation by fauna contrast with low values from west Arctic (though only two samples) and south Atlantic shores. Colonisation rates of debris differed between hemispheres, previously considered to be similar. Our two South Atlantic mega-debris shipboard surveys (10 years apart) found no changes in open-ocean debris densities but resurvey of a UK and an Arctic island both found increases. We put our findings in the context of the Atlantic literature to interpret spatial and temporal trends in marine debris accumulation and its organismal consequences.