PHOTOGRAPH BY David Liittschwager
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One net off the coast of Hawaii collected 2,459 plastic particles—most the size of a grain of sand. The net also scooped up a bottle cap (right) and a wad of degraded fishing net (top right).
PHOTOGRAPH BY David Liittschwager

These tiny fish reveal our oceans’ biggest problem: plastic

About nine million tons of visible plastic trash enter oceans each year—then there’s the waste we can’t see.

This story is part of Planet or Plastic?—our multiyear effort to raise awareness about the global plastic waste crisis. Learn what you can do to reduce your own single-use plastics, and take your pledge.

This story appears in the May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

There’s the plastic waste we can see—bottles, bags, discarded fishing nets, and all manner of other objects littering shorelines and bobbing in oceans. And then there’s the plastic waste we can’t see: microplastics, whittled by sun, wind, and waves into bits so small that some are visible only under a microscope. Scientists are just beginning to understand the impact these particles are having on fish, the food chain, and ultimately, us.

For this month’s story about microplastics—part of National Geographic’s Planet or Plastic? initiative to reduce plastic waste—photographer David Liittschwager documented the ubiquity of plastics in ocean water samples. Writer Laura Parker’s reporting took her to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab in Honolulu, where oceanographer Jamison Gove and fish biologist Jonathan Whitney study microplastics in the slicks where larval fish spend their first days of life.

In some of those slicks there are more plastics in the water than fish. That raises the odds that just hatched fish will mistake plastic bits for food and eat them. “The most critical moment is that first feeding,” Whitney said. “If they get a piece of plastic, that could be it. A single thread in the stomach of a larval fish is potentially a killer.”

Fish that ingest plastic and survive raise other concerns, Parker writes: “Flying fish appear to eat plastic especially frequently. Besides serving as prey for larger fish, including sharks, flying fish are primary prey for 95 percent of Hawaiian seabirds. Are birds ingesting plastic with their flying fish, and is that affecting them? For every question the researchers answer, Gove says, 10 new ones come up.”

Most of us won’t see microplastics’ harm at the level that scientists do. But with about nine million tons of visible plastic waste washing into oceans each year, we see clearly how it’s hurting turtles, seabirds, whales, and many other species. Isn’t that reason enough to join the global effort to reduce plastic waste?

So far in our Planet or Plastic? initiative, more than 150,000 people have pledged to use nearly 200 million fewer single-use plastic items. I’d call that a good start.