73pc of deep sea fish in north-west Atlantic ingest microplastics

19 Feb 2018

Image: photoneye/Shutterstock

A study looking to determine the volume of microplastics in deep sea fish in the Atlantic Ocean has produced some seriously troubling results.

It seems that much of the world is finally coming to the realisation that the tonnes of plastic waste that end up in our oceans might be having a seriously detrimental effect on the health of marine life.

Particularly damaging are the so-called microplastics, which originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items entering our oceans, or from clothing and microbeads from personal care products.

So much so that, apparently, Queen Elizabeth II was moved to introduce her own plastics ban on her royal estates.

However, years of unrestricted dumping has already caused considerable damage, as a new study conducted by researchers at NUI Galway has found.

In a paper published to Frontiers in Marine Science, the research team found that 73pc out of 233 deep water fish from the north-west Atlantic Ocean had ingested plastic particles.

To come to these findings, the team participated in a transatlantic crossing on board the Marine Institute’s Celtic Explorer research vessel.

During this time, it collected samples of dead sea fish from the midwater trawls in the region, such as glacier lanternfish (just 3.5cm long) and stout sawpalate (59cm) from a depth of up to 600 metres using large fishing nets.

Spotted lanternfish

A deepwater spotted lanternfish, measuring 4.5cm in size. Image: Hannah Brownlow/NUI Galway

One of the highest reported amounts

Because these fish migrate to the surface at night to feed on microscopic plankton, it is likely that this is exposing them to near-invisible microplastics.

“One of the inspected spotted lanternfish, which was 4.5cm in size, had 13 microplastics extracted from its stomach contents,” said Alina Wieczorek, who led the study.

“The identified microplastics were mostly fibres, commonly blue and black in colour. Some only measured 50 microns in length.”

The discovery that 73pc of the fish had microplastics in their stomach makes this one of the highest reported frequencies of ingested plastic occurrences in fish worldwide.

The research also highlighted the scale of pollution as it shows that these seemingly remote fish located thousands of kilometres from land and 600 metres down in our ocean are not isolated from our pollution.

The warm core eddy where the fish were sampled is also believed to play a part in accumulating microplastics, giving a possible reason as to why the region is so polluted.

“This would explain why we recorded one of the highest abundances of microplastics in fishes so far, and we plan to further investigate the impacts of microplastics on organisms in the open ocean,” Wieczorek said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic