Thursday November 14, 2019

A Secret Ingredient Of Your Favorite Sushi: Microplastic

Ocean acidity has increased about 25 percent

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A Secret Ingredient Of Your Favorite Sushi: Microplastic
A Secret Ingredient Of Your Favorite Sushi: Microplastic, VOA

The beautiful, all-you-can-eat sushi platter you shared with friends last week might have included a special ingredient: plastic.

Microplastics — the remnants of plastic bags, takeout containers and straws that almost-but-not-quite disintegrate in the oceans — are found in 3 out of 4 fish, such as squid, cuttlefish and swordfish in markets around the world, say the authors of a February study.

“These fish inhabit a remote area, so theoretically they should be pretty isolated from human influences, such as microplastics,” said Alina Wieczorek, lead author of the Frontiers study.

“However, as they regularly migrate to the surface, we thought that they may ingest microplastics there,” she said.

Food chain pollutants

Consumers are waking up to pollutants in their food chain, and scientists are joining them to raise awareness and combat other issues like overfishing. Last week, thousands marched in the United States and 25 other countries for World Oceans Day.

Under the hood of a shark costume was Brian Yurasits, director of development at the nonprofit TerraMar Project, which educates and promotes ocean issues. Yurasits circulated with about 3,000 others at the march in the shadow of the Washington Monument and a life-size, inflatable blue whale.

Microplastics
Microplastics, flickr

Holding a sign that read, “Sharks are friends, not food,” Yurasits emphasized that issues about ocean health “is more than just plastic.”

“It’s overfishing, climate change, invasive species and habitat loss,” he said.

The youth-led Sea Youth Rise Up advocates for ocean conservation, including reduced single-use plastics such as plastic straws, water bottles and shopping bags, which the ocean breaks down into microplastics. Much of the plastic that ends up in the oceans was blown into rivers first from uncontained trash on land.

Microplastics are microscopic and smaller than plankton, a popular food choice of larger marine life. They are made of hydrocarbons, a compound found in petroleum and natural gas, and attract other pollutants, according to the National Association of Geoscience Teachers.

Because microplastics can’t be digested, they build up in the fish that consume them.

“The biggest impacts aren’t the ones we can see very easily,” said Katie Farnsworth, a professor and marine geologist who studies coastal sediments at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “The biggest danger is those microplastics, because they are being eaten by things in the bottom of the food web, and then move their way up through the chain.”

The plastics can give off toxins, she said, because plastic is made from hydrocarbons. And hydrocarbons, she explained, attract and bind with other pollutants that are in the ocean.

 

Carbon dioxide

But microplastics aren’t the only threat to marine life. Ocean acidification and overfishing also imperil the health of oceans.

Ocean acidification occurs when seawater absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is released into the air by burning fossil fuels, like oil and coal. That makes the ocean more acidic, which harms shellfish, other marine life and plants.

Ocean acidity has increased about 25 percent since the Industrial Revolution starting in 1760, the EPA reports, commonly depicted by billowing smokestacks at coal-burning factories.

Julia Dohner is a second-year Ph.D. student studying marine chemistry and geochemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. She is also a surfer who spends lots of time in the Pacific Ocean.

“Everything I think about is through the context of carbon dioxide,” Dohner said. “For me, reducing one’s carbon footprint is really important. It’s kind of a straightforward task, if you want to do something about the environment.”

“There’s been a lot of effort going into understanding how quickly our oceans are acidifying and understanding how those conditions will affect various forms in the ocean,” Dohner said.

micro particles in dead fish,
micro particles in dead fish, flickr

Overfishing

Overfishing also threatens ocean health. It occurs when more fish are caught than the population can replace through natural reproduction. According to the World Wildlife Federation, several important commercial fish populations, such as Atlantic bluefin tuna, have declined to the point where their survival as a species is threatened.

Regulating overfishing is nearly impossible because “fish could care less about political boundaries,” said Farnsworth, meaning fishing boats follow the fish, often disregarding lines drawn around territorial boundaries.

“Regulations in one country don’t help very much because you have to get treaties to get everybody in agreement,” she said.

Dohner said she believes that the biggest threat the ocean faces is a lack of awareness of these issues.

Also read: Human Touch Can Rehabilitate Patients

“There’s all this research going on about how our planet is changing and what it’s going to look like in the future,” Dohner said. “But at the end of the day, if we can’t convince people such that there is tangible policy changes enacted, then what have we really accomplished?” (VOA)

Next Story

It’s Time To Save Endangered Gorillas

Endangered gorillas can be saved with a lot of human help

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Gorillas
Humans need to save Gorillas. Pixabay

Deep in the rainforest of Volcanoes National Park, a 23-year-old female gorilla named Kurudi feeds on a stand of wild celery. She bends the green stalks and, with long careful fingers, peels off the exterior skin to expose the succulent inside.

Biologist Jean Paul Hirwa notes her meal on his tablet computer as he peers out from behind a nearby stand of stinging nettles.

The large adult male sitting next to her, known as a silverback, looks at him quizzically. Hirwa makes a low hum — “ahh-mmm” — imitating the gorillas’ usual sound of reassurance.

“I’m here,” Hirwa is trying to say. “It’s OK. No reason to worry.”

Hirwa and the two great apes are all part of the world’s longest-running gorilla study — a project begun in 1967 by famed American primatologist Dian Fossey.

Yet Fossey herself, who died in 1985, would likely be surprised any mountain gorillas are still left to study. Alarmed by rising rates of poaching and deforestation in central Africa, she predicted the species could go extinct by 2000.

Instead, a concerted and sustained conservation campaign has averted the worst and given a second chance to these great apes, which share about 98% of human DNA. Last fall, the Switzerland-based International Union for Conservation of Nature changed the status of mountain gorillas from “critically endangered” to “endangered,” an improved if still-fragile designation.

gorillas
The population of mountain gorillas is vulnerable. Pixabay

It wouldn’t have happened without an intervention some biologists call “extreme conservation,” which has entailed monitoring every single gorilla in the rainforest, periodically giving them veterinary care and funding forest protection by sending money into communities that might otherwise resent not being able to convert the woods into cropland.

Instead of disappearing, the number of mountain gorillas — a subspecies of eastern gorillas — has risen from 680 a decade ago to just over 1,000 today. Their population is split between two regions, including mist-covered defunct volcanoes within Congo, Uganda and Rwanda — one of Africa’s smallest and most densely populated countries.

“The population of mountain gorillas is still vulnerable,” says George Schaller, a renowned biologist and gorilla expert. “But their numbers are now growing, and that’s remarkable.”

Once depicted in legends and films like “King Kong” as fearsome beasts, gorillas are actually languid primates that eat only plants and insects, and live in fairly stable, extended family groups. Their strength and chest-thumping displays are generally reserved for contests between male rivals.

Every week, scientists like Hirwa, who works for the nonprofit conservation group the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, gather data as part of long-term behavioral research.

If they see any health problems in the gorillas, they inform the staff at Gorillas Doctors, a nongovernmental group whose veterinarians work in the forest. The vets monitor wounds and signs of respiratory infections, but intervene only sparingly.

When they do, they almost never remove the animals from the mountain.

“Our hospital is the forest,” says Jean Bosco Noheli, a veterinarian at Gorilla Doctors. When his team goes into the field to address a gorilla emergency, they must carry everything they might need in equipment bags weighing up to 100 pounds — including portable X-ray machines.

Schaller conducted the first detailed studies of mountain gorillas in the 1950s and early ’60s. He also was the first to discover that wild gorillas could, over time, become comfortable with periodic human presence, a boon to researchers and, later, tourists.

Today, highly regulated tour groups hike in the Rwandan rainforest to watch gorillas.

Ticket revenue pays for operating costs and outstrips what might have been made from converting the rainforest to potato farms and cattle pastures. About 40% of the forest already was cleared for agriculture in the early 1970s.

gorillas
Gorillas share about 98% of human DNA. Pixabay

“With tourism, the tension is always not to overexploit,” says Dirck Byler, great ape conservation director at the nonprofit Global Wildlife Conservation, which is not involved in the Rwanda gorilla project. “But in Rwanda, so far they’re careful, and it’s working.”

The idea of using tourism to help fund conservation was contentious when conservationists Bill Weber and Amy Vedder first proposed it while living in Rwanda during the 1970s and ’80s. Fossey herself was skeptical, but the pair persisted.

“The wonder of the gorillas’ lives, their curiosity, their social interactions — we felt that’s something that could be accessible to others, through careful tourism,” Vedder says.

Figuring out the balance of how many people could visit the forest, and for how long, was a delicate process of trial and error, Weber says.

In 2005, the Rwandan government adopted a model to steer 5% of tourism revenue from Volcanoes National Park to build infrastructure in surrounding villages, including schools and health clinics. Two years ago, the share was raised to 10%.

To date, about $2 million has gone into funding village projects, chief park warden Prosper Uwingeli says.

“We don’t want to protect the park with guns. We want to protect and conserve this park with people who understand why, and who take responsibility,” he says.

The money from tourism helps, but the region is still poor.

Jean Claude Masengesho lives with his parents and helps them farm potatoes. About once a week, the 21-year-old earns a little extra money helping tourists carry their bags up the mountain, totaling about $45 a month. He would someday like to become a tour guide, which could earn him about $320 monthly.

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The obstacle is that most tour guides have attended college, and Masengesho isn’t sure how his family can afford tuition.

“It’s my dream, but it’s very hard,” he says. “In this village, every young person’s dream is to work in the park.” (VOA)