5 facts you need to know about Marine life and Microplastics

A little over four months on since the footage of pollution in Blue Planet II shocked the nation, the fight against plastic continues on Bournemouth and Poole beaches.

Bass and Mackerel, as well as other local marine life are now two of the 600 marine species whose lives are directly threatened as a result of plastic pollution[i]. In terms of casualties, One Green Planet recently estimated that over 100 million fish are killed annually by plastic[ii]. Even more shocking is research by the United Nations Environment Programme, which has indicated that humans may be vulnerable to unknown and potentially lethal toxins through the ingestion of fish whose stomachs contain plastic[iii]. In other words, we may be getting seriously ill from eating our own waste.

It seems the time to act could is now.

In recent years, there has been growing academic and professional alarm over the long term impact microplastics are having on marine life. Microplastics are defined as any piece of plastic between 2-6mm in length[iv] and are now widely considered to be more toxic than bulkier pieces[v]. However, there is little public knowledge of this. To counteract this, here are 5 key facts you need to know about microplastics …

  • Microplastics are called mermaid tears in the UK and there’s lots of them

Microplastics have been nicknamed mermaid tears in marine conservation circles around the UK. However, unlike the fantasy name, the consequences of mermaid tears have become all too real. A 2007 report produced by Surfers Against Sewage prewarned about the growing mermaid tear epidemic  and highlighted  that microplastics were the second most common pieces of litter found on UK beaches[vi]. Yet, it seems little has been done to solve this issue and a 2017 investigation by Greenpeace uncovered 250 million microplastics on UK beaches in just a single weekend[vii].

Professor Rick Stafford of Bournemouth University shared his local experience with microplastics; “If you tow a plankton net along for 5 or 10 minutes it’s amazing in terms of the number of microplastics that are actually in the water in what is actually a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Poole Harbour”.

Alas, it seems that even designated conservation sites may not be enough to protect marine life from microplastics.

  • Microplastics shrink certain marine species’ appetites

Research by Clean Water Action has found that a growing number of marine species are dying from chronic dietary limitations started by the ingestion of plastic[viii]. Let’s not forget, plastic is not designed to be eaten and thus has no nutritional benefits to offer. However, marine species do not know this and continue to ingest our waste in expense of their usual diet. The results have been truly shocking as an array of species of fish have begun to grow at a noticeably slower rate and an estimated 50-80% of dead sea turtles are found to have stomachs full of plastic[ix].

Worryingly, a study by the University of Exeter discovered that the ingestion and absorption of toxins in microplastics takes marine life up to six times longer to get rid of than bulkier plastics[x]. These findings, coupled with the fact that there is now a predicted 12 million tonnes of plastic going into the ocean each year, suggests that the stomachs of marine life may never be totally free from plastic[xi].

 

  • Microplastics act as a vector for other pollutants

Multiple academic studies have revealed that microplastics not only pose a direct threat to marine species, as they also act as vector for other pollutants in the environment[xii][xiii]. Currently, oil, carcinogenic toxins and other poisonous substances are enabled access to marine life through microplastics. For these reasons, Dr. José Derraik has warned that the diversity of global marine life is threatened to drop by as much as 58%[xiv].

However, the consequences of this stretch beyond marine life. After all, the accumulation of toxins within fish formed a key part of the United Nations Environment Programme’s decision to class microplastics as a threat to human life[xv]. This call came amid growing scientific evidence that these pollutants may still be dangerous even after the fish has been cooked or washed[xvi]. Seemingly, we now join marine life in being vulnerable to the repercussions of plastic pollution.

  • Microplastics limit fish mating and so much more

Arguably the most saddening consequence of plastic pollution have been the changes in the everyday behaviour of marine life. Initially, these changes were attributed to the species adapting to their new plastic neighbours. However, new evidence by Professor Maria Fossi has dispelled these suggestions  in the darkest possible way[xvii].

Professor Fossi’s study uncovered polystyrene particles in the brain tissue of fish[xviii]. Alongside this, the study also found that these particles changed the brain structure of fish, and deduced that the presence of these particles was the sole reason for any behavioural changes[xix]. Worryingly, among these changes has been a decline in marine species potency and desire to mate with one another.

“It’s truly upsetting and disgusting”, said lifelong Dorset resident Sophie Price, “To think our waste has prevented the existence of potentially millions of lives” of marine species.

Miss Price’s comments are echoed within the conservation community who now fear that our waste has permanently changed the day-to-day lives of marine species.

  • There’s so much we do not know about microplastics

Unfortunately, the worst is saved for last. “The long term effects we don’t necessarily know”, stated Professor Stafford, “There seems to be some evidence that it’s having a slow negative effect on marine life and even if they can expel it, it is still going to have a negative effect”.

Professor Stafford’s concerns are recurrently found within multiple academic studies[xx]. All of which acknowledge that it may take many years for the true impacts of microplastics to become clear. However, it is certain that any impacts will be harmful to marine life.

How can you help?

Marine life is defenceless and needs your help in the fight against plastic pollution. Please find the links to some local environmental groups below and let’s work together to protect our oceans.

Friends of the Earth: https://friendsoftheearth.uk/groups/eastdorset

Bournemouth 2026 Trust: http://www.bournemouth2026.org.uk/sustain

SUBU Green: https://www.subu.org.uk/green

Greenpeace advice on cutting plastic: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/9-ways-reduce-plastic-use/

BY JONATHAN EVANS

[i] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

[ii] Henn, C., 2017. These 5 marine animals are dying because of our plastic trash…Here’s how we can help. One Green Planet [online], 5th February 2017. Available from: http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/marine-animals-are-dying-because-of-our-plastic-trash/ [Accessed 20th February 2018].

[iii] UN Environment, 2017. Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme [online], 5th December 2017. Available from: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22255/Frontiers_2017_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [Accessed 19th February 2018].

[iv] Derraik, J., 2002. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9), 842-852.

[v] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

 

[vi] Le Guern Lytle, C., 2017. When the mermaids cry: The great plastic tide. Coastal Care [online], 1st January 2017. Available from: http://plastic-pollution.org/ [Accessed 23rd February 2018].

[vii] McClenaghan, M., 2017. Hundreds of thousands of plastic pellets found on UK beaches. Unearthed [online], 17th February 2017. Available from: https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/2017/02/17/hundreds-thousands-plastics-pellets-found-uk-beaches/ [Accessed 16th February 2018].

[viii] Clean Water Action, 2018. The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Clean Water Action [online], 1st January 2018. Available from: https://www.cleanwater.org/problem-marine-plastic-pollution [Accessed 25th February 2018].

[ix] Mrosovsky, N., 2009. Leatherback turtles: The menace of plastic, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 58 (2), 287-289.

 

[x] Watts, A., Lewis, C., Goodhead, R., Beckett, S., Moger, J., Tyler, C., and Galloway, T., 2014. Uptake and retention of microplastics by the shore Crab Carcinus maenas, Environmental Science and Technology, 48 (15), 8823-8830.

[xi] Casson, L., 2017. How does plastic end up in the Ocean? Greenpeace [online[, 22nd August 2017. Available from: https://www.greenpeace.org.uk/plastic-end-ocean/ [Accessed 25th February 2018].

[xii] Mattsson, K., Johnson, E., Malmenda, A., Linse, S., Hansson, L., and Cedervall, T., 2017. Brain damage and behavioural disorders in fish induced by plastic nanoparticles delivered through the food chain, Scientific Reports, 7 (1), 1-7.

[xiii] Karlsson, T., Arneborg, L., Brostrom, G., Carney Almroth, B., Gipperth, L., and Hassellov, M., 2018. The unaccountability case of plastic pellet pollution, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 129 (1), 52-60.

[xiv] Derraik, J., 2002. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: A review, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 44 (9), 842-852.

 

[xv] UN Environment, 2017. Frontiers 2017: Emerging Issues of Environmental Concern. United Nations Environment Programme [online], 5th December 2017. Available from: https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/22255/Frontiers_2017_EN.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y [Accessed 19th February 2018].

 

[xvi] Foekema, E., Gruijter, C., Mergia, M., Andries Van Franeker, J., Tinka, A., Murk, J., and Koelmans, A., 2013. Plastic in North Sea Fish, Environmental Science and Technology, 47 (15), 8818-8824.

[xvii] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

[xviii] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

 

[xix] Fossi, M., Coppola, D., Baini, M., Giannetti, M., Guerranti, C., Marsili, L., Panti, C., Sabata, E., and Clò, S., 2014. Large filter feeding marine organisms as indicators of microplastics in the pelagic environment: The case studies of the Mediterranean basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), Marine Environmental Research, 100, 17-24.

[xx] Karlsson, T., Arneborg, L., Brostrom, G., Carney Almroth, B., Gipperth, L., and Hassellov, M., 2018. The unaccountability case of plastic pellet pollution, Marine Pollution Bulletin, 129 (1), 52-60.

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