A carpet of plastic and polystyrene debris several miles wide was discovered this October by British-born photographer Caroline Power.
She captured the scene on camera between the Honduran islands of Roatán and Cochinos Cays off the north coast of Honduras in the usually pristine Caribbean sea.
"There were a seemingly endless amount of forks, spoons, bottles and plastic dishes. There were busted soccer balls, toothbrushes, a television and a lot of shoes and flip-flops," the artist and environmental activist wrote on Facebook, where she shared the images.
"It is devastating to see something that matters so much to me being slowly killed and suffocated because of human waste," she said.
According to the environmental organization Blue Planet Society the garbage came from the Monteagua river in Guatemala and drifted into Honduran waters due to heavy rains in Central America in past weeks.
Guatemala does not have a formal garbage collection system across the whole country, so in many villages garbage is thrown along the banks of rivers and on the outskirts of cities, the group says.
"This is the first time that a picture has brought the attention of the plastic problem in the Caribbean Sea to the public,” John Hourston, Founder of Blue Planet Society, told Global Citizen. “We’ve known about the Pacific gyres for quite a long time, but ... I’ve never seen a photo that illustrates how bad the problem is in [this] area.”
The group is dedicated to fighting for the cleanliness of the ocean and has campaigned for years to raise awareness of the problem.
According to the United Nations, marine debris is affecting more than 800 animal species and causing losses along global coastlines equivalent to more than $13 billion. The garbage includes food wrappers, bottle caps, drinking straws, grocery bags, beverage bottles and cigarette butts.
At least 75 percent of the debris is made of plastic, which breaks down into microplastics than can be absorbed by many organisms with fatal consequences.
Although plastic pollution at sea is not new, the problem is no longer just a scientific or environmental one. The discussion increasingly revolves around economics and public health. The number of species affected in the world has increased by more than 150: in 2012 the affected species were estimated at 663; a number that has increased to 812.
The ingestion of these materials, or entanglement in them, are the main causes of illness and death. An estimated 40 percent of cetaceans and 44 percent of seabird species are affected by ingestion of marine debris.
Challenge for tourist islands
Roatan is one of the most beautiful islands in Honduras and a popualr tourist attraction, combining white sand beaches, a turquoise ocean and abundant marine life.
According to the TripAdvisor travel website, this island of just 83 square kilometers and a population of 50,000 is ranked among the 10 best islands to vacation globally, after Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, and Maui Island, in Hawaii.
Popular with divers, it is also a cruise ship destination. This year it is expected to receive more than 1.2 million visitors, according to the Honduran Institute of Tourism (IHT).
Representatives of the governments of Honduras and Guatemala assured the Blue Planet Society that they will be working to find a speedy solution to the floating debris.
Univision wrote to the press offices of the environmental ministries of both countries, but did not receive an immediate response.