Prey-Size Plastics Are Invading Larval Fish Nurseries

November 11, 2019

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.

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 principle prey item for tuna and seabirds. Scaling-up across a ~1000 km2 coastal ecosystem in Hawai‘i revealed slicks occupied only 8.3 percent of ocean surface habitat but contained 42.3 percent of all neustonic larval fish and 91.8 percent 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.


Gove JM, Whitney JL, McManus MA, Lecky J, Carvalho FC, Lynch JM, Li J, Neubauer P, Smith KA, Phipps JE, Kobayashi DR, Balagso KB, Contreras EA, Manuel ME, Merrifield MA, Polovina JJ, Asner GP, Maynard JA, Williams GJ. 2019. Prey-size plastics are invading larval fish nurseries. Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Last updated by Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on 11/11/2019