The vertical distribution and biological transport of marine microplastics across the epipelagic and mesopelagic water column
Plastic waste has been documented in nearly all types of marine environments and has been found in species spanning all levels of marine food webs. Within these marine environments, deep pelagic waters encompass the largest ecosystems on Earth. We lack a comprehensive understanding of the concentrations, cycling, and fate of plastic waste in sub-surface waters, constraining our ability to implement effective, large-scale policy and conservation strategies. We used remotely operated vehicles and engineered purpose-built samplers to collect and examine the distribution of microplastics in the Monterey Bay pelagic ecosystem at water column depths ranging from 5 to 1000 m. Laser Raman spectroscopy was used to identify microplastic particles collected from throughout the deep pelagic water column, with the highest concentrations present at depths between 200 and 600 m. Examination of two abundant particle feeders in this ecosystem, pelagic red crabs (Pleuroncodes planipes) and giant larvaceans (Bathochordaeus stygius), showed that microplastic particles readily flow from the environment into coupled water column and seafloor food webs. Our findings suggest that one of the largest and currently underappreciated reservoirs of marine microplastics may be contained within the water column and animal communities of the deep sea.