When paddler/filmmaker Steve Weileman bottled his first sample of sea water off a remote, undeveloped section of the Alaskan coast, it looked transparent and pristine. Weeks later when Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC) partner scientist Abby Barrows looked at the same sample under her microscope she found what she finds in more than 85 percent of surface sea water samples: microplastic particles.
Large plastic litter is easy to see in our oceans. Plastic bags drift in the Atlantic like processed petroleum jellyfish. Water bottles wash up on shores. And a massive collection of debris called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirls in the North Pacific. Microplastics, however, are only visible under a microscope and until recently they have been overlooked by scientists and the public.
Yet, work by ASC and research partners at the Marine Environmental Research Institute (MERI) is finding more than 85 percent of surface samples contain microplastic particles. These particles can resemble phytoplankton and are ingested by marine life. Consumed by larger species plastic and toxins may then bioaccumulate in larger marine mammals, sea birds and humans.
A microplastic particle found in a marine sample collected by ASC volunteers. Photo by Abby Barrows.
As a Patagonia environmental grantee ASC is working to raise public awareness and scientific understanding of this problem. In 2014 ASC will be recruiting a flotilla of adventure scientists in New England and around the world to help collect sea water samples to study microplastics and catalyze consumer and legislative change.
In recent months ASC adventurers have helped MERI expand its data set by collecting samples from as far away as Thailand and Alaska. Researchers at MERI found microplastic contamination in every single sample, with counts as high as 71 pieces per liter in one of Steve’s samples.
“Marine microplastics pollution is a global issue that is impacting fisheries and will impact people’s lives in the years to come,” says MERI scientist Abby Barrows. These plastic particles come from environmental weathering of plastic pollution, municipal runoff, manufacturing processes and even common cosmetics.
ASC adventurer Laura Smith collecting water samples from the deck of the SY Quijote. Photo by Laura Smith.
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To study this problem in New England ASC needs rowers in Boston, divers from Portsmouth, sea kayakers near Camden, and sailors off Acadia to help add data points. One-liter samples of sea water are needed all along the New England coastline from Boston, Massachusetts to Eastport, Maine. By better understanding the distribution and concentration of microplastics, legislators and consumers can take steps to limit the spread of this pervasive form of pollution. Plastic bag bans in coastal communities, recycling programs for plastic commercial fishing gear and improved community recycling programs will all be informed by this research.
Anyone who likes to spend time on the water can contribute to this study. It is a simple sampling protocol that collects important data.
“Anyone who likes to spend time on the water can contribute to this study. It is a simple sampling protocol that collects important data,” says MERI’s Barrows. Whether you’re a winter surfer or a summer beach stroller we need your help. Join us today and contribute to conservation with your time on the water! Find out more information on our microplastics project page. Keep up with ASC by subscribing to ASC’s blog, liking us on Facebook and following us on Twitter (@AdventurScience),Instagram (@AdventureScience) and Google+