Pollution is turning young fish into the human teenagers of the sea, new research claims. No, they haven’t figured out how to refill their parents’ liquor bottles quite yet, but they are basically “stuffing themselves” with the only processed food product they can find: the eight tons of hazardous plastics dumped into the ocean every year. The finding appears in the latest issue of Science, as part of an article analyzing the impact of the crazy amount of human trash plaguing Earth’s seas. The team of Swedish researchers found that young fish (“teens,” if you will) exposed to high levels of microplastic went on to display “abnormal behaviors.” Mainly, what researchers mean is the fish started eating the plastic — and liked it so much that they ignored their natural food. “They all had access to zooplankton and yet they decided to just eat plastic,” one of the confounded researchers told the BBC. “It seems to be a chemical or physical cue that the plastic has, that triggers a feeding response in fish.”
The plastics essentially fool fish into believing garbage is “a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of,” explains the study’s lead author, adding it’s just like with “unhealthy fast food for teenagers.” She and her colleagues found fish that consume large quantities of microplastics are “smaller, slower, and more stupid” than ones living in clean water and, therefore, on healthier diets. Junk-eating fish died at twice the rate of the others when they were exposed to predators.
The news gets worse, too: While societal pressure is forcing fast-food companies to clean up their act, the ocean’s plastic is just going to stay plastic, and by 2050 it’s supposed to outweigh all the fish, who face an uphill battle as it is.