Post provided by Chloe Robinson
It is no surprise that COVID-19 has changed the course of a substantial number of things in the world since the start of the pandemic. One of the most understated impacts is the devastating reversal of many years’ worth of fighting plastic pollution. In the wake of International Coast Cleanup Day and World Environmental Health Day, Associate Editor Dr. Chloe Robinson will be discussing the impacts of marine litter and plastic pollution on marine life and how the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program is working to stop the leak of litter and plastic pollution into the ocean.
Here today, here tomorrow, and here the day after that…
The phrase ‘ocean litter’ may conjure up a range of mental images for you; maybe you see a lone plastic bag drifting in the currents, or the Pacific/Atlantic Great Garbage Patch, or maybe you replay the tragic scenes from Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series, featuring wandering albatrosses feeding their chicks a diet of plastic.
Despite the ‘Attenborough effect’ of steep single-use plastic decline following the airing of the Blue Planet II series, our global consumption of plastic continues to rise. This demand has only increased during the pandemic, resulting in 1.6 million tonnes/day of plastic waste created in the form of single-use facemasks, face shields, plastic gowns, hand sanitizer bottles and gloves.
From micro to macro: Size matters
Ocean litter, in particular plastic pollution and discarded fishing gear, present a variety of threats to marine life, via ingestion, entanglement and via accumulation of chemical components and plasticizers associated with the breakdown of ocean plastics. When ocean plastics degrade in the marine environment, they also form microplastics – plastic fragments <5 mm in size – which are one of the most widespread and abundant forms of plastic in the world.
Being so small in size and often accumulating up the food chain, it is difficult to detect and understand the impact of microplastics in marine animals. However, some researchers have developed innovative methodologies to investigate the plastic exposure of marine animals. In their 2014 Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper, Hardesty et al. developed a swabbing technique to make an assessment of ingestion of plastics in seabird populations. They collected the waxy preen oil expressed from the uropygial gland and tested for the presence of three common plasticizers: dimethyl, dibutyl and diethylhexyl phthalate dimethyl phthalate, dibutyl phthalate and bis(2-ethylhexyl)-phthalate. Using this relatively non-invasive approach, they were able to detect low levels of these plasticizers via gas chromatography–mass spectrometry and determine the extent of seabird population exposure to plastics.
For top predators such as grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), authors Nelms et al. developed a method to investigate dietary exposure to microplastics in their 2019 Methods in Ecology and Evolution paper. This approach combined scat-based molecular techniques with a microplastic isolation method to determine that higher proportions of cod and mackerel were associated with greater microplastic abundances in the seals targeted in the study. The development of these two novel methodologies goes a long way towards understanding exposure of marine life to plastics, which helps us to better understand overall ocean health.
Trash mob – Taking action against plastic pollution
In addition to refusing, reusing and recycling, one way to reduce the amount of litter in our oceans is to help remove it from the environment. This is exactly what employees and volunteers at the Vancouver Aquarium (BC, Canada) decided to do back in 1994, which sparked a chain reaction of cleanups across BC. In 2002, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup became a national conservation initiative, and cleanups started appearing in every province and territory. By 2003, more than 20,000 volunteers were taking part in beach cleans across Canada.
Run as a conservation partnership between non-profit marine conservation association, Ocean Wise and WWF-Canada, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup provides opportunities for people to take action in their communities wherever water meets land. Since 1994, there have been 27,800 cleanups that have collected more than 2 million kg of litter across Canada’s shorelines.
This year, Ocean Wise organised a number of beach cleans, spanning from International Coast Cleanup Day on September 18th to World Environmental Health Day on September 26th. For these events, Ocean Wise staff from the Whales Initiative teamed up with Vancouver Fraser Port Authority, the Ruby Lake Lagoon Society, the City of Victoria, the Loon Foundation, the City of Vancouver, the Pender Harbour Ocean Discovery Station (PODS) and Safeway to conduct beach cleans at several locations along the BC coast. A total of 70 volunteers attended and collected a total of ~500 kg of ocean trash – the weight equivalent of 5 Pacific white-sided dolphins!
In addition to removing litter and plastic pollution from coastlines, these Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup tracks the types and numbers of litter collected from beaches, to understand origins of ocean litter and inform policy, research and solutions to reduce the amount making its way into our seas.
There has never been a more important time for people to take action on ocean litter. Refusing, reusing & recycling and participating in beach cleans are just a few ways people can help reduce the amount of litter ending up in our seas. Ocean Wise has set up a Plastic Reduction Program, which details top tips and actions you can take to reduce your plastic waste. For more information, visit their website: Individuals – Plastic Reduction Program (ocean.org).
To find out more about the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, visit the website: shoreline.cleanup.org
Learn more about Ocean Wise’s initiatives at: ocean.org
To read the full Methods in Ecology and Evolution papers mentioned in this blog, click on the relevant paper title: “A biochemical approach for identifying plastics exposure in live wildlife” & “What goes in, must come out: Combining scat-based molecular diet analysis and quantification of ingested microplastics in a marine top predator”
About the editor
Dr. Chloe Robinson recently joined the Ocean Wise Whales Initiative team in the role of Conservation and Research Manager for the Southern Vancouver Island Cetacean Research Initiative (SVICRI), based out of Victoria, BC. Chloe was previously worked as Postdoctoral Fellow & Project Manager for the STREAM project at the University of Guelph.