Marine Researchers Just Found Microplastics In An Unlikely Place

Image by Jovana Milanko / Stocksy

There are plenty of fish in the sea—and plenty of microplastics. An initial study on the diets of many species of fish larvae shows that tiny plastic particles play a prominent role on the menu.

Once fish eggs hatch into larvae, they are still too young to swim far distances on their own and prefer to mostly stay put. (Think of them as little fish toddlers.) The research, conducted by NOAA's Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and an international team of scientists off the coast of Hawaii, dove into the eating and moving patterns of these larvae. Many different species of larvae they studied chose to set up shop in areas known as slicks, naturally occurring ribbons of calm water near the ocean's surface.

In addition to being a refuge from rough tides, these surface slicks also accumulate nearby plankton, providing the natural nursery with food. But, in a disturbing discovery, the research team found that microplastics are making their way into these areas too.

"We were shocked to find that so many of our samples were dominated by plastics," Jonathan Whitney, Ph.D., a marine ecologist for NOAA, wrote in the study. The concentration of plastics in the slicks was 126 times higher than the surrounding waters, at levels eight times those reported in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The small size of microplastics means that fish are mistaking them for food. After dissecting the larvae, Whitney and his team found that many species, including swordfish, mahi-mahi, and triggerfish, had ingested the particles.

While scientists don't yet know exactly how microplastics affect fish health, they do know that the larval stage is one of the most critical in their development and a time when proper nutrition is key.

Considering we typically gut fish before eating them, it's unlikely that this news will directly affect humans. However, it does underscore just how much our processes and products are affecting the natural world.

"We're finding microplastic everywhere. That, in and of itself, is problematic. There's literally no clean environment left on the whole planet," Bethany Carney Almroth, Ph.D., an aquatic microplastic researcher, told mbg earlier this year. It seems like the more places we go looking for microplastics, the more of them we find. So, for the sake of Nemo, let's clean up our act and use less single-use plastic, wash our clothes responsibly, and clean up our personal care routines.

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