There has been a recent shift in global perception of plastics in the environment, resulting in a call for greater action. Efforts have been made to confer protected status to some remote locations, forming some of the world’s largest Marine Protected Areas.

This study assessed plastic at remote Atlantic Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), surveying the shore, sea surface, water column and seabed from 2013 to 2018. Additionally, the plastic incidence in 26 species across South Atlantic oceanic food webs, ranging from plankton to seabirds, was investigated.

The results show drastic changes in the last decade. Marine debris on beaches has increased more than 10-fold, sea surface plastics have also increased and plastic on seabeds were observed in worrying densities. The authors state that, for the first time, beach densities of plastics at remote South Atlantic sites approached those at industrialized North Atlantic sites. It is highlighted that this increase even occurs at hundreds of meters down on seamounts.

The study also found that plastics had been ingested by primary consumers (zooplankton) to top predators (seabirds) at high rates.

The obtained findings suggest that MPA status will not mitigate the threat of plastic proliferation to this rich, unique and threatened biodiversity. It is concluded that this work shows a worrying state of the environment in these proposed and new MPAs, where plastics are now entering the food chain.

The authors highlight that policy needs to catch up with high and escalating risks from plastic pollution. Global mass attention on an issue tends to be brief, yet the authors state that this study highlights the need to increase progress on solutions to the plastic crisis.

Barnes et al. (2018) Marine plastics threaten giant Atlantic Marine Protected Areas. Current Biology 28:R1121–R1142.