Marine Biologists & Earth’s Future

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Hirondellea gigas, an amphipod collected from the Mariana Trench (ALAN JAMIESON / NEWCASTLE UNIVERSITY)

Ed Yong’s story will not make you happy. But it is a plastics must-read. Marine biologists are akin to climate scientists whose job requires sharing specific unsettling findings. To put it mildly. The scientist in this case says he does not like doing this work. But he continues in the interest of science and in the interest of the planet’s future. Thanks to him and people like him:

A Troubling Discovery in the Deepest Ocean Trenches

In the Mariana Trench, the lowest point in any ocean, every tiny animal tested had plastic pollution hiding in its gut.

Alan Jamieson remembers seeing it for the first time: a small, black fiber floating in a tube of liquid. It resembled a hair, but when Jamieson examined it under a microscope, he realized that the fiber was clearly synthetic—a piece of plastic. And worryingly, his student Lauren Brooks had pulled it from the gut of a small crustacean living in one of the deepest parts of the ocean.

For the past decade, Jamieson, a marine biologist at Newcastle University, has been sending vehicles to the bottom of marine trenches, which can be as deep as the Himalayas are tall. Once there, these landers have collected amphipods—scavenger relatives of crabs and shrimp that thrive in the abyss. Jamieson originally wanted to know how these animals differ from one distant trench to another. But a few years ago, almost on a whim, he decided to analyze their body for toxic, human-made pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which have been banned for decades but which persist in nature for much longer.

The team found PCBs galore. Some amphipods were carrying levels 50 times higher than those seen in crabs from one of China’s most polluted rivers. When the news broke, Jamieson was inundated with calls from journalists and concerned citizens. And in every discussion, one question kept coming up: What about plastics?

The world produces an estimated 10 tons of plastic a second, and between 5 million and 14 million tons sweep into the oceans every year. Some of that debris washes up on beaches, even on the world’s most isolated islands. About 5 trillion pieces currently float in surface waters, mostly in the form of tiny, easy-to-swallow fragments that have ended up in the gut of albatrossessea turtlesplanktonfish, and whales. But those pieces also sink, snowing into the deep sea and upon the amphipods that live there.

Brooks eventually found plastic fibers and fragments in 72 percent of the amphipods that the team collected, from all six trenches that they had surveyed. In the least polluted of these sites, half of the amphipods had swallowed at least one piece of plastic. In the 6.8-mile-deep Mariana Trench, the lowest point in any ocean, all of the specimens had plastic in their gut…

Read the whole story here.

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