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.

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.”

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