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Trophic transfer of microplastics in seals confirmed

Amsterdam, 06 September 2018 – Marine animals eat microplastics when they mistake it for food. When they themselves are eaten, the microplastics are unintentionally ingested by the predator. This process is called the ‘trophic transfer’ of microplastics. The trophic transfer could potentially spread microplastics throughout the entire food chain. In a recently published study in Environmental Pollution, the trophic transfer of microplastics in seals, higher up in the food chain, is confirmed. This is an indirect but potentially important form of ingestion of microplastics.

To research the trophic transfer of microplastics, four captive grey seals were fed with mackerel caught off the English coast. The digestive tracts of 31 mackerels were examined to gain an impression of the presence of microplastics. The faeces of the seals were also collected twice a week for 16 weeks and examined for the presence of microplastics. The types of plastic that were found in the mackerel and the faeces showed significant overlap, with ethylene propylene the most commonly occurring type of plastic. There were some differences too, however. Ten of the 31 mackerels had 18 types of microplastics, 72% of which were plastic fibres and 28% small plastic fragments. In 15 of the 31 faeces, 26 microplastics were found, mostly consisting of small plastic fragments (69%) and, to a lesser degree, plastic fibres (31%).

The most important explanation for the differences is that the mackerel whose digestive tracts were examined were not the mackerel that were fed to the seals. Direct ingestion of the microplastics is unlikely as the seals had already resided in the centre for four years and were thus not recently exposed to plastic debris in the ocean. The researchers therefore concluded that this research confirms the trophic transfer of microplastics in seals.

The potential effects of the microplastics on the seals was also discussed. Previous research showed that microplastics in the digestive system reduces nutrition absorption, energy reserves and reproduction which could have a negative impact on the animals. Whether this also applies to seals is not known. Further, during the production process, added chemicals and organic substances that later attach to the plastic in the water may also have negative effects on the health of seals. Finally, the authors state the possible effects on human health. We too consume marine animals are thus exposed to microplastics through the trophic transfer. A recent survey mapped the potential health hazards of microplastics for humans.



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Bristle worms eat plastic

Amsterdam, 20 August 2018 – Buoys of polystyrene (EPS), often used for the cultivation of oysters and muscles in open sea in Korea and other countries, slowly disintegrate under the influence of sunlight. Research showed that a single buoy could break up in seven million particles. And about 100,000 of these types of buoys are used per square kilometre of ocean surface. However, a recent study showed that sunlight is not the only cause of the disintegration. Bristle worms (polychaetes) work their way into the buoy, eat the polystyrene and then excrete microplastics. This is an alarming find.

The Korean study, published in Marine Pollution Bulletin, found on average six to seven worms per buoy. And a single bristle worm can produce hundreds of thousands particles of microplastics in a single year. Laboratory experiments showed that one adult bristle worm excreted over 11,000 particles of microplastics in one week.

Bristle worms are at the bottom of the food chain and eaten by birds and fish. Researchers fear this could increase the spread of microplastics.

Two years ago, scientific research already discovered that the growth of the land-living earthworms is slowed down, and their live span is shortened, if they are exposed certain concentrations of microplastics. These organisms also spread microplastics by excreting them into the ground at greater depths.

Also read: Plastic is making coral reefs sick


Problem of ghost nets larger than imagined

Amsterdam, March 29, 2018 – The research team from The Ocean CleanUp has published their report on the amount of plastic waste in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Not only is there much more than initially believed, but it is also accumulating rapidly. Almost half of the weight (more than 46%) appears to consist of abandoned fishing nets, which is not difficult to imagine; large floating ghost nets are several times heavier than individual pieces of floating plastic, and they are made for fishing in the sea.

It is well known that ghost nets and other abandoned fishing gear, such as buoys, contribute significantly to the plastic soup and turn millions of sea creatures into victims. What are large fishing companies doing to prevent their nets from being left behind? World Animal Protection has assessed the fifteen largest fishing companies in the world on this topic and has recently published a report on the findings. The results are shocking. None of the mega-fishing companies researched include the problem of ghost nets in their agenda, and they are certainly not taking action to prevent their nets from ending up in the ocean. Just one company acknowledges the existence of the problem at all; none of the companies report about it.

As long as there is no effective international control system, ships will continue to dump their nets with impunity.

Also read: Plastic is making coral reefs sick


Plastic Is Making Coral Reefs Sick

Amsterdam, January 30, 2018 — Coral reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystem in the ocean. They brew with life, yet they are extremely vulnerable. It is well-known that fishing nets have a disastrous effect on reefs, and that in the case of heavy currents, the coral is easily broken by abandoned nets. A new scientific study has recently appeared in Science that points to additional negative effects of plastic on coral health; the insights are alarming. 

Corals are living organisms that can become ill. Plastic plays a major role in this process, as has recently been revealed for the first time. Plastic-damaged coral is weakened and therefore vulnerable to illness. These illnesses do not only affect single organisms, but spread throughout entire reefs.

Coral that ensnares plastic has a 20 times greater chance of becoming ill. Plastic can seal light and oxygen, and release toxins. The most alarming thing, however, is that bacteria can piggyback on plastic and colonize it. If pathogenic bacteria attack the coral, nothing can be done. Researchers compare such cases with gangrene, the ongoing process of tissue extinction in humans and animals. 

Between 2011 and 2014, 159 coral reefs were researched in the Southeast-Asian region and in Australia. The chance of coral becoming diseased increases dramatically when plastic lingers in the reefs; 89% of coral in the presence of plastic were found to be ill, as opposed to 4% of the coral in the absence of plastic. There is also a clear relationship between the degree of plastic pollution in reefs near countries with poor waste management, such as Indonesia (25.6 items per 100m2), versus those in the vicinity of countries that have better management, like Australia (0.4 items per 100m2).

Researchers estimate that by now there are more than 11 billion pieces of plastic present in reefs. If action is not taken, the number will rise to15.7 billion pieces by 2025. The food security of millions of people is at stake; when coral reefs die, many species of fish lose their breeding spot, which results in a reduction of species diversity.


Camels continue to die of plastic in the desert

Amsterdam, 9 January 2018 – Every week, Dr Ulrich Wernery performs a necropsy on camels. The Director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai has been doing this for years. He finds plastic in almost every camel’s stomach. Not just a little plastic, but an unimaginable amount of plastic. Given that the camels cannot digest the plastic that they eat, the plastic accumulates in their stomachs, forming larger and larger clumps. It is estimated that one of every two camels in the United Arab Emirates dies of plastic consumption. The picture shows the largest clump of plastic that Dr Wernery has found to date – a couple of hundred plastic bags, nylon twine and rope, weighing 52 kilos. 


When Dr Wernery sees a thin camel, he knows for sure that it has plastic in its stomach. The plastic in the stomach gives the camel a full feeling, and it starts eating less and less. On top of this, the plastic blocks the digestive tract. Of course, it is not only camels that die from ingesting plastic, it is also cows, goats, gazelles and sheep. Read an interview with Dr Wernery here. 

The American photographer and filmmaker, Chris Jordan, known for his shocking photos of dying albatross chicks on Midway island, filmed a lump of plastic like this two years ago.   

Dr Wernery has been warning about this phenomenon for more than ten years. Unfortunately, it has not led to any changes. Camels continue to die because so many people leave plastic behind in the desert and nobody cleans it up.   

Photo’s gratitude dr. Wernery.

Carlos Rodriguez V. - Pallid Goby
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Nanoplastics cause brain damage and behavioural abnormalities in fish

For the first time, scientists at Lund University in Sweden have proven that nanoplastics enter the brains of fish through the food chain and that this leads to abnormal behaviour. The research findings were published in the authoritative journal, Nature, on 13 September.

For the research, the scientists recreated two food chains for two months. One contained no nanoplastics while the other contained nanoplastics that were invisible to the naked eye. In the experiment, algae and water fleas were exposed to polystyrene particles of 53 and 180 nanometers. The water fleas were then fed to freshwater fish.

The fish that were exposed to the 53 nm plastics ate more slowly and travelled further to reach their food than the group that were exposed to the 180 nm. The 180 nm group exhibited hyperactive behaviour. The researchers believe that the abnormal behaviour was caused by an accumulation of nanoplastics in the fishes’ brains.

Furthermore, the research showed that all the fish in the experiment had nanoplastics in their brains. In contrast, the brains of animals in a control group did not contain plastic particles. The scientists believe that an accumulation of nanoplastics in the brains can occur in nature. While animals are constantly exposed to low concentrations of nanoplastics, they may not live long enough for the plastic particles that slowly accumulate in their bodies to cause damage. The carp used in the research can live to over 10 years.

The researchers concluded that the nanoplastics in algae are eaten by water fleas, which in turn are eaten by fish. This is how the plastic particles move through the food chain. Humans are at the top of the food chain and the question is to what extent plastic particles enter human bodies and accumulate there.

Maria Westerbos, director of the Plastic Soup Foundation: “What we already feared is confirmed in this study – nanoplastics go up through the food chain and cause abnormal behaviour in animals. Much more research is needed, and governments must take measures to stop nanoplastic pollution to protect human and animal health.”