With the amount of plastic waste dump into the oceans at an all-time high, it is, unfortunately, only logical that some of it, especially the microscopic microplastics, will become ingested by marine wildlife. During their forages for food, fish and other marine animals simply cannot avoid coming across and unintentionally consuming plastic elements. Up until now, we really only know about this kind of accidental, but now, however, it turns out that fish may eat plastic not just by accident but … because it smells good.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that anchovies were attracted by the scent of some types of plastic and mistook them for food.

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Matthew Savoca, lead author of the study, was interested in why marine animals are eating the plastic they happen upon, since they have evolved to target very specific kinds of food. “What we really wanted to do was actually think about this problem from the animal’s perspective,” he explained to The San Diego Union-Tribune .

The team of researchers tested different odors on wild schools of anchovies caught off the California coast. The scents were prepared by soaking in seawater substances like krill (eaten by anchovies in the wild), “biofouled” plastic coated in algae and bacteria, and clean plastic.

During the experiment, the fish quickly huddled around the krill flavor. They didn’t react that way to clean plastic – but did exactly the same when given the biofouled one, proving that plastic which entered the ocean could be attractive to them because of the algae on it. “It was surprising how obvious and dramatic their responses were,” Savoca said. Algae gives off a sulfuric smell – which, to many animals, means, to put it simply, a tasty meal.

The study sheds more light on the process of plastic entering the food chain – and often ending up on the plates of those of us who eat seafood. Every year, we globally throw around 8.8 million tons of plastic into the oceans. Once in the water, it poses a huge threat to marine wildlife and other species of animals. When an animal ingests plastic, the material releases toxins into the animal’s body and these nasty chemicals only accumulate and become more harmful as they go up the food chain.

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While the reasons why an animal may or may not consume plastic is the subject of further study – one thing is for sure, we need to reduce the amount of plastic entering the oceans if we hope to stop them from eating plastic at all.

To learn how to use and waste less plastic, check out One Green Planet’s #CrushPlastic campaign!

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

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