The BBC likens it to the way teenagers are drawn to Doritos and Mountain Dew, but the research is there to support the claim: young fish are particularly vulnerable to becoming “addicted” to eating ocean plastic pollution.
The study, published in the recent issue of the journal Science, found that when perch larvae are exposed to polystyrene, they grow to prefer it to their natural diets, even though the plastic provides no nutritional value. Instead, it poses health risks to the fish and the greater food chain.
"They all had access to zooplankton and yet they decided to just eat plastic... It seems to be a chemical or physical cue that the plastic has, that triggers a feeding response in fish," lead study author Dr Oona Lonnstedt, from Uppsala University, told BBC News.
"They are basically fooled into thinking it's a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of. I think of it as unhealthy fast food for teenagers, and they are just stuffing themselves."
Fish eggs exposed to plastic in the study also showed potentially troublesome results. Eighty-one percent of perch eggs exposed to plastic hatched, compared with 96 percent of eggs that were not exposed to the plastic. This could mean difficulty for species' survival in the future. And it's also having an impact on the health of the fish once they've hatched.
“As a result of exposure to plastic, the young perch are smaller, slower and more susceptible to predators,” BBC explains.
Plastic pollution in the oceans and waterways has become a significant problem for ocean ecosystems in recent years. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a plastic-filled stretch of Pacific Ocean twice the size as Texas brought a global awareness to the issue, but little has been done to remove or prevent more plastic from entering our oceans. About 8 million tons of plastic enter the oceans each year.
President Obama banned plastic micro-beads in cosmetics and personal care products late last year, but other countries, including the member states of the EU, have yet to take official action against micro-beads.
All plastic breaks down in the ocean over time, but micro-beads enter the oceans already so small, and they easily make their way into the diets of fish and marine mammals.
"It's a silent threat that we haven't really thought about before,” said Dr Lonnstedt.
“We need to ban the products that have micro-beads in them."
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Ocean plastic image via Shutterstock