Tuesday March 19, 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

Helping Endangered Whales Becomes Difficult Due To Shutdown

These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts

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A North Atlantic right whale feeds on the surface of Cape Cod bay off the coast of Plymouth, Mass., March 28, 2018. VOA

Rescuers who respond to distressed whales and other marine animals say the federal government shutdown is making it more difficult to do their work.

A network of rescue groups in the U.S. works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to respond to marine mammals such as whales and seals when the animals are in trouble, such as when they are stranded on land or entangled in fishing gear. But the federal shutdown, which entered its 33rd day on Wednesday, includes a shuttering of the NOAA operations the rescuers rely upon.

NOAA plays a role in preventing accidental whale deaths by doing things like tracking the animals, operating a hotline for mariners who find distressed whales and providing permits that allow the rescue groups to respond to emergencies. Those functions are disrupted or ground to a halt by the shutdown, and that’s bad news if whales need help, said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston, which has a rescue operation.

Pilot whales
Orca

“If it was very prolonged, then it would become problematic to respond to animals that are in the water,” LaCasse said. “And to be able to have a better handle on what is really going on.”

The shutdown is coming at a particularly dangerous time for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, which numbers about 411, said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, a senior biologist with Whale and Dolphin Conservation of Plymouth, Massachusetts. The whales are under tight scrutiny right now because of recent years of high mortality and poor reproduction.

NOAA recently identified an aggregation of 100 of the whales south of Nantucket — nearly a quarter of the world’s population — but the survey work is now interrupted by the shutdown, Asmutis-Silvia said. Surveys of rare whales are important for biologists who study the animals and so rescuers can have an idea of where they are located, she said. No right whale mortalities have been recorded so far in 2019, but there have been at least 20 since April 2017.

“There’s a really significant impact on marine mammal conservation based on this shutdown,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “We have little to no ability to find them because of NOAA’s being furloughed.”

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The Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum is seen shuttered during the partial government shutdown, Jan. 4, 2019, in Washington. VOA

Many in the conservation community are anticipating potential changes to federal government’s Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan, which is a tool to reduce incidental deaths of whales. But that process, too, is on hold because of the shutdown.

Calls from The Associated Press to NOAA spokespeople were not returned. Some spokespeople for the agency have voicemail set up to say they will return to work when the shutdown is over.

Working around shutdown

Scott Landry, director of marine mammal entanglement response for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, said a NOAA whale entanglement hotline is currently being forwarded to him, and he’s managing to pick up the slack so far. Rescue groups anticipated the shutdown and are working together to make do until it’s over, he said.

Also Read: The Great U.S. Government Shutdown

In Virginia, one of the state’s first responders for whale rescues is the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Resource Center in Virginia Beach. Mark Swingle, the aquarium’s director of research and conservation, said the center would not have “the usual assets we depend on to support the response” if it needs to assist an endangered whale.

That’s because NOAA staff and the Coast Guard would not be available, Swingle said.

“These circumstances require extremely specialized training and resources and NOAA is the lead organizer of large whale and other disentanglement efforts,” he said. “Live strandings pose their own set of challenges that NOAA helps navigate appropriately.” (VOA)