​Plastic is a versatile, durable, lightweight, important man-made substance used frequently in our everyday lives. Whether designed to be used for a few minutes (plastic straw), several days (water bottle) or many years (fishing gear), plastic can break down over time due to abrasion or ultraviolet (UV) light degradation, creating microplastic particles. When released into the environment, plastic and plastic particles persist until they are removed, and can cause great harm in the meantime.

Microplastics are small (<5mm – 1µm) particles of plastic that have broken down from larger pieces of plastic, or which have been designed to be small (such as microbeads in facial scrubs or beads for craft projects). It is estimated that between 4 and 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s ocean each year (Jambeck et al. 2015), and that figure continues to grow as the production and use of plastic increases.

Researchers at the Center for Coastal Studies are studying the presence and impacts of microplastics in our marine ecosystem. A recent publication by Christy Hudak and Lisa Sette reported their findings of plastic particles in the fecal samples of gray and harbor seals in the Northwest Atlantic populations. In addition, Christy is working with the University of Rhode Island and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to study plastic ingestion of Great Shearwaters caught in the gillnet fishery in the Gulf of Maine; and she is investigating the potential ingestion of microplastics by North Atlantic right whales. The microplastic fiber pictured (above, middle) was found in an archived sample of zooplankton, the preferred food of a right whale.

Hudak, Christine A. and Lisa Sette. 2019. “Opportunistic detection of anthropogenic micro debris in harbor seal (Phoca vitulina vitulina) and gray seal (Halichoerus grypus atlantica) fecal samples from haul-outs in southeastern Massachusetts, USA.” Marine Pollution Bulletin 145: 390-395.

Jambeck, Jenna R., Roland Geyer, Chris Wilcox, Theodore R. Siegler, Miriam Perryman, Anthony Andrady, Ramani Narayan, and Kara Lavender Law. 2015. “Plastic Waste Inputs from Land into the Ocean.” Science 347 (6223): 768.

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