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Prey-size plastics are invading larval fish nurseries



Jamison Gove, Jonathan Whitney, Margaret McManus, Joey Lecky, Felipe Carvalho, Jennifer Lynch, Jiwei Li, Philipp Neubauer, Jana Phipps, Donald Kobayashi, Karla Balagso, Emily Contreras, Mark Manuel, Mark Merrifield, Jeffrey Polovina, Gregory Asner, Jeffrey Maynard, Gareth Williams


Life for many of the world's marine fish begins at the ocean surface. Ocean conditions dictate food availability and govern survivorship, yet little is known about the habitat preferences of larval fish during this highly vulnerable life-history stage. Here we show that surface slicks, a ubiquitous coastal ocean convergence feature, are important nurseries for larval fish from many ocean habitats at ecosystem scales. Slicks had higher densities of marine phytoplankton (1.7- fold), zooplankton (larval fish prey; 3.7-fold), and larval fish (8.1-fold) than nearby ambient waters across our study region in Hawai‘i. Slicks contained larger, more well developed individuals with competent swimming abilities compared to ambient waters, suggesting a physiological benefit to increased prey resources. Slicks also disproportionately accumulated prey-size plastics, resulting in a 60-fold higher ratio of plastics to larval fish prey than nearby waters. Dissections of hundreds of larval fish found that 8.6% of individuals in slicks had ingested plastics, a 2.3- fold higher occurrence than larval fish from ambient waters. Plastics were found in 7 of 8 families dissected, including swordfish (Xiphiidae), a commercially targeted species, and flying fish (Exocoetidae), a principal prey item for tuna and seabirds. Scaling up across an ∼1,000 km2 coastal ecosystem in Hawai‘i revealed slicks occupied only 8.3% of ocean surface habitat but contained 42.3% of all neustonic larval fish and 91.8% of all floating plastics. The ingestion of plastics by larval fish could reduce survivorship, compounding threats to fisheries productivity posed by overfishing, climate change, and habitat loss.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences


fish, larvae, plastic pollution, marine debris, plastic ingestion


Gove, J. , Whitney, J. , McManus, M. , Lecky, J. , Carvalho, F. , Lynch, J. , Li, J. , Neubauer, P. , Phipps, J. , Kobayashi, D. , Balagso, K. , Contreras, E. , Manuel, M. , Merrifield, M. , Polovina, J. , Asner, G. , Maynard, J. and Williams, G. (2019), Prey-size plastics are invading larval fish nurseries, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, [online], (Accessed April 23, 2024)
Created November 10, 2019, Updated October 12, 2021