A larval perch with microplastic in its gut. Vancouver Island University professor Sarah Dudas says the effects of microplastics still aren’t fully understood, but they are believed to have impacts on the reproductive abilities of fish.

A larval perch with microplastic in its gut. Vancouver Island University professor Sarah Dudas says the effects of microplastics still aren’t fully understood, but they are believed to have impacts on the reproductive abilities of fish. (
Photo Credit: (Oona Lönnstedt)

Microplastics in shellfish- new study

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Microplastics are now showing up everywhere in oceans and lakes, and in aquatic creatures. Microplastics are tiny specs of plastic ranging in size from 5mm down to microscopic.

They are either plastic beads used in some cosmetics or toothpastes as abrasives, from plastic bags and containers that break down into smaller and smaller bits but never disappear, or fibres from synthetic clothing breaking free during washing.

Exceedingly fine plastic fibres found inside the body of a Great Lakes fish. Scientists who have reported that the lakes are awash in tiny bits of plastic are raising new alarms about a little-noticed form of the debris turning up in sampling nets: synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths and other consumer products.
Exceedingly fine plastic fibres found inside the body of a Great Lakes fish. Scientists who have reported that the lakes are awash in tiny bits of plastic are raising new alarms about a little-noticed form of the debris turning up in sampling nets: synthetic fibres from garments, cleaning cloths and other consumer products. © Rachel Ricotta/Associated Press

While the effects of microplastics aren’t fully understood, it seems almost certain that they aren’t good.  Plastic garbage in the ocean already kills everything from sea-turtles, to whales, to seabirds.

Now two universities in British Columbia on Canada’s Pacific coast, are studying the effect of microplastics on bivalves; clams, oysters, mussels.

One of the university students taking part, Maggie Dietterle says, “Microplastics are an added factor to plastic pollution. The beading in toothpaste, confetti from parades, the glitter people put on their faces, the sources are endless and the hardest part is educating people about it”.

She adds, “Since I started the project I’ve been going home and talking to my friends and family about this. I want to get the word out and start them thinking about where the plastic products they buy end up. Shellfish are resilient so I ask myself, if they are being affected by microplastics then what are the microplastics doing to the more vulnerable organisms in the oceans”?

The research is being led by Garth Covernton, a University of Victoria (UVic) masters student and supervised by Vancouver Island University (VIU) biology professor Sarah Dudas. She is holds the Canada Research Chair in shellfish aquaculture ecosystem interaction and biology.

The study is being conducted based at the VIU Deep Bay Marine Research Station on Vancouver Island
The study is being conducted based at the VIU Deep Bay Marine Research Station on Vancouver Island © VIU Facebook

The research involves tagging some 3,000 bivalves (2,000 oysters, 1,000 clams)  in shallow waters on Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Potential threat to human health

People are being asked not to touch any bivalve they find  with a tag “experiment in progress”.  To get a wide picture of the situation, the marked bivalves includes some areas where commercial shellfish aquaculture is taking place, as well as somewhat remote areas of the coast, and areas near the urban centres of Victoria and Vancouver

Dudas says, “The ability of microplastics to absorb and concentrate chemicals that may be eaten by organisms makes them a serious emerging threat to wildlife and natural ecosystems and potentially, human health”.

In the VIU press release she adds, “We are looking at shellfish because they are filter feeding organisms. They accumulate anything that is in the water and they live on the coast where the most drastic changes are happening, which makes them excellent sentinels of ecosystem health.”

She also notes that so far they are not finding a lot of the microbeads, but rather “mainly fibres that come from washing your clothes or fibres that might be shed from ropes or other fabrics”.

Researchers tageed some 3,000 oysters and clams ror later study of effects of microplastics. At Vancouver Island University’s Deep Bay Marine Field Station, L-R, student researchers Raquel Greiter, Caitlin Smith, project lead Garth Covernton, and Maggie Dietterle
Researchers tageed some 3,000 oysters and clams for later study of the effects of microplastics. At Vancouver Island University’s Deep Bay Marine Field Station, L-R, student researchers Raquel Greiter, Caitlin Smith, project lead Garth Covernton, and Maggie Dietterle © VIU

“Microplastics are an added factor to plastic pollution. The beading in toothpaste, confetti from parades, the glitter people put on their faces, the sources are endless and the hardest part is educating people about it,” said Dietterle. “Since I started the project I’ve been going home and talking to my friends and family about this. I want to get the word out and start them thinking about where the plastic products they buy end up. Shellfish are resilient so I ask myself, if they are being affected by microplastics then what are the microplastics doing to the more vulnerable organisms in the oceans?”

The tagged shellfish were placed in 22 beaches, 11 shellfish farms and 11 wild sites. They will be re-harvested in September to determine how much microplastics they consumed over the summer.

Scientists estimate several million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year..

Additional information-sources

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