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Trillions of barely visible pieces of plastic are floating in the world’s oceans, from surface waters to the deep seas. These particles, known as microplastics, typically form when larger plastic objects such as shopping bags and food containers break down.
Researchers are concerned about microplastics because they are minuscule, widely distributed and easy for wildlife to consume, accidentally or intentionally. We study marine science and animal behavior, and wanted to understand the scale of this problem. In a newly published study that we conducted with ecologist Elliott Hazen, we examined how marine fish – including species consumed by humans – are ingesting synthetic particles of all sizes.
In the broadest review on this topic that has been carried out to date, we found that, so far, 386 marine fish species are known to have ingested plastic debris, including 210 species that are commercially important. But findings of fish consuming plastic are on the rise. We speculate that this could be happening both because detection methods for microplastics are improving and because ocean plastic pollution continues to increase.
Researchers at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium have found microplastic particles from the surface to the seafloor, where they can be ingested by a wide range of sea creatures.
Solving the plastics puzzle
It’s not news that wild creatures ingest plastic. The first scientific observation of this problem came from the stomach of a seabird in 1969. Three years later, scientists reported that fish off the coast of southern New England were consuming tiny plastic particles.
Since then, well over 100 scientific papers have described plastic ingestion in numerous species of fish. But each study has only contributed a small piece of a very important puzzle. To see the problem more clearly, we had to put those pieces together.
We did this by creating the largest existing database on plastic ingestion by marine fish,