A new report has revealed that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – an enormous swath of trillions of plastic items and trash floating between California and Hawaii – is three times the size of France and growing rapidly.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, analyzed aerial views and a total of 1.2 million plastic samples obtained from the patch. Researchers extrapolated that, at the least, there are 79 thousand tons of plastic floating in the patch, four times greater than previously estimated. The garbage patch covers more than 617,000 square miles, 16 times larger than scientists believed.

“Historical data from surface net tows indicate that plastic pollution levels are increasing exponentially inside the GPGP [Great Pacific Garbage Patch], and at a faster rate than in surrounding waters,” wrote the authors of the study. “While this does not necessarily mean that the GPGP is the final resting place for ocean plastic reaching this region, it provides evidence that the plastic mass inflow is greater than the outflow.”

Yachtsman Charles Moore first discovered the GPGP in 1997 when he sailed through the mass of plastic products, fishing nets and other trash while on a return trip to his home in Los Angeles. The patch was named by Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer who tracks ocean currents along with cargo that has fallen overboard, Fox News reported.

According to the study, discarded fishing nets account for 46 percent of the trash in the patch. The remainder is comprised of other fishing industry gear such as ropes, crates, baskets and eel traps, and debris from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, estimated to account for 20 percent of the patch.

“I knew there would be a lot of fishing gear, but 46 percent was unexpectedly high,” Laurent Lebreton, an oceanographer with the Ocean Cleanup and lead author of the study said. “Initially, we thought fishing gear would be more in the 20 percent range. That is the accepted number [for marine debris] globally—20 percent from fishing sources and 80 percent from land.”

Another recent report from Britain’s Foresight Future of the Sea estimated that plastic pollution in the ocean could triple by 2050, aligning it with sea level rise and warming oceans as a key environmental threat facing marine life, and the seas in general.

“Plastic does not decompose, instead breaking down into ever smaller pieces,” the report states. “The full effects are not understood, but there is growing evidence of plastic harming sea creatures and restricting their movement, as well as polluting beaches.”

The report recommended, “The major response is likely to lie in preventing it from entering the sea, introducing new biodegradable plastics, and potentially public awareness campaigns about marine protection – again addressing the out of sight, out of mind challenge.”