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Scientists Eye New Threat to Gulf of Maine Ecosystem: Microplastics
07/08/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

An estimated 280 million tons of plastic is produced globally every year. Most of it is not recycled, which means it ends up either in landfills - or in the ocean. Environmental researchers are growing increasingly concerned by what happens when this plastic breaks down into smaller particles known as microplastics, and the effect it can have on marine life. This concern has prompted one research organization Downeast to start taking serious measures to monitor the level of plastic contamination in the Gulf of Maine. Tom Porter has the story.

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Plastic Monitoring in Maine Waters-14

A 33-foot former lobster boat motors away from the public landing out into Blue Hill Bay. The research vessel MERI (above) has been repurposed and is now "fishing" for plastic - or to be more precise, microplastics.

MERI stands for the Marine Environmental Research Institute, a non-profit based in Blue Hill that studies ocean pollution.

With captain George Napp at the helm, the institute's coastal monitoring co-ordinator Abby Barrows starts taking water samples - either straight into a jar off the back of the boat, or with the help of a tow net. The results, she says, are alarming.

Plastic Monitoring in Maine Waters-11"Every single sample of water that we've taken - one litre - has had at least a piece of plastic in it," Barrows says. "I mean, to me that's mind-boggling - the environmental repercussions are huge."

Microplastic is the generic name given to pieces of plastic that have broken down into particles of 5 millimeters or less in diameter. Most pieces are too small to see with the naked eye. They get into the ocean in two ways: either through waste water or runoff - a testament to the amount of plastic found in everyday household items, like hygiene products and synthetic fibers; or they appear as larger items of plastic debris in the ocean, and break down into smaller pieces over time.

Barrows says this is a relatively new area of scientific research. But it's clear, she says, that microplastics have the potential to wreak serious havoc on the ecosystem. "The issue with microplastics is that plastics are made from oil, and oil is essentially a fat," and many chemicals in the environment, she explains, are attracted to fats and absorbed by the plastic.

"And so we have these tiny little pieces of plastic that are floating around in the ocean, absorbing all these different chemicals that are also in the ocean," Barrows says. "Therefore we're having these small, very highly-concentrated toxic sponges that are now being ingested by every animal you can think of."

It's a concern which has prompted the Marine Environmental Research Institute to expand its ocean monitoring program. This year for the first time, MERI has begun recruiting volunteers - citizen scientists who will collect regular samples from various points in Penobscot Bay.

Plastic Monitoring in Maine Waters-1Back on the waterfront, Barrows conducts a training session for two of the volunteers. "So what you'll do is you'll wade into the water as high as your boots - or maybe you'll be without boots," she says. Using a glass jar to collect samples of sea water, Barrows demonstrates the procedure.

There's more to it than you might think. For example, consider what you wear: A lot of clothing today contains synthetic materials, which can emit particles of microplastic and contaminate your sample. The prevalence of plastic in the world has been concerning Blue Hill resident Gabrielle Wellman for some time now.

"Just seems like once you get something plastic you can't throw it away, there's nowhere for it to go," she says. "So I'm pretty concerned with its usage."

Wellman is one of the nine volunteers being trained - as is Ben Jackson of Stonington. "This is high school science. This is my level," he says.

Wellman regularly attends public lectures at MERI, and says he's looking forward to playing the role of citizen scientist. "This is just simple data, you know? Water in a jar, take it to the lab - but the effects, I think, could be huge."

For the next three months, volunteers like Ben and Gabrielle will collect weekly ocean water samples from different sites in Blue Hill Bay. Those samples will be studied under the microscope by researchers at MERI, as they try to put together a picture of just how widespread this new form of ocean pollution has become.

Photos: Veronica L.Young - Marine Environmental Research Institute



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