Nine of ten fulmars have plastic in their stomachs

April 9, 2015 - 05:29

Plastic in the form of very small particles, called ‘microplastic’, pollutes much of the marine environment. Scientists now find microplastics in the majority of samples collected from the world's oceans.

Fulmars, like other organisms dependent on the ocean for food, often inadvertently consume plastic. (Photo: Scanpix, Håkon Mosvold Larsen)

The use and production of plastic has increased dramatically over the past 65 years. Plastic is used in many everyday products that improve the quality of life globally, yet roughly 50 per cent of all plastic produced is used in disposable products that generate a substantial amount of waste. Plastic litter from the inappropriate disposal of plastic products is now a major global problem.

Very small plastic particles (<5 mm), known as ‘microplastic’, are found in the environment when they are released from products that contain these small particles, as well as from and the breakdown of larger plastic trash.

"Microplastics are ubiquitous in the world's oceans and they have been found in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and their adjacent seas, in both coastal areas and offshore," says Inger Lise Nerland, a PhD candidate at the Norwegian Institute for Water Research (NIVA).

The proportion of samples containing microplastics ranges widely, but most studies have found microplastics in the majority of the samples collected. Much of the debris found in sediment is plastic (up to 96 per cent), and sediments and beaches have become a sink for this pollutant.

From pole to pole

Organisms are known to ingest microplastic particles, and many commercially important marine organisms are known to contain microplastics.

Plastic debris pollutes oceanic habitats from pole to pole: it is found in the open ocean, on shorelines of even the most remote islands and in the deep sea. At a global scale, several studies identified large-scale convergence zones of plastic debris due to the major ocean currents.

High concentrations of microplastics have been found in five oceanic gyres (the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, South Indian, North Pacific and South Pacific gyres). Researchers also believe there may be an as-yet unreported patch in the Barents Sea.

"The great spatial heterogeneity of microplastics at large and mesoscales makes it difficult to extrapolate local monitoring data to larger areas," Nerland explains.

Long-term monitoring is required to keep track of the load of microplastics in the marine environment, but these data are scarce. When researchers try to balance the quantities of plastic discharged with those measured, they find a 100-fold difference between the measured and predicted loads, which also highlights an important gap in the size distribution of floating plastic debris.

Double hazard

Plastic also contains additives, chemicals added to improve the desirable properties of the plastic product. Many of these additives are known hazardous substances and can leach from the plastic surface. Once released into the environment, plastics can also accumulate persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Surveys of contaminants in plastic particles collected from beaches suggest that their concentrations may be representative of the environment the particles were sampled from.

"Plastic particles have the potential to act as vectors for the transport and release of contaminants and additives," Nerland says.

While the transfer of contaminants from ingested plastic particles and debris into organisms has been demonstrated in laboratory experiments, it remains unclear whether contaminated plastic in the environment can affect contaminant bioaccumulation in marine organisms.

"However, it is clear that marine organisms ingest microplastics, and that laboratory experiments show that this can result in harm," Nerland says.

"To our knowledge there are no documented reports of the direct effects of microplastic ingestion on wild organisms. The effects of microplastics on marine organisms are typically sub-lethal, such as reduced feeding and increased uptake of certain contaminants," she says.

Laboratory experiments show that microplastics can have negative impacts on organisms, such as a reduction in the growth of marine worms and changes in gene regulation in fish.

There is a lack of data on the levels of microplastics present in the Norwegian environment and there is an urgent need to evaluate the extent of microplastic pollution around the coast of Norway and Spitsbergen.

9 of 10 fulmars exposed

What is clear is that northern fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) are consuming plastics. Recent findings suggest that 95 per cent of northern fulmars in the North Sea had plastic in their stomachs and that 58 percent contained levels above the 0.1 g identified as an OSPAR Commission environmental quality objective.

With respect to the Norwegian coast and specifically the Skagerrak, 50 per cent of northern fulmars that were studied contained levels above 0.1 g.

----------------

Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

Country
NIVA is an environmental research organisation committed to research, monitoring, assessment and studies on freshwater, coastal and marine environments in addition to environmental technology. Read more

Jobs

Follow ScienceNordic on