The Russian Doll of microplastics

Scary news of epic proportions in the Pacific: millions of tiny larval fish off the Hawaiian coastline are found to be eating microplastics in alarming amounts. What does this ominous outlook mean for the future of sea life – and our oceanic environments – as a whole?

Bad news to worse news for ocean life

microplastic fish
This russian doll effect is more concerning than first thought. Photo: NOAA/David Liitschwager

It’s no secret to any of us that the ocean – any which one of them – is littered with trash, namely plastic. Plastic tends to be one of the scariest bits of trash found within the ocean, on the shores, and in the water. It never decomposes and causes death to numerous types of sea life, such as Sea Turtles, fish, sharks, birds, and plants.

But, perhaps far more concerning than just the trash itself is the fact that millions of tiny larval fish – a common food source for larger fish and birds– are consuming microplastics at an alarming rate. At the mercy of the ocean, these tiny larval fish are smaller than quarter-sized and generally stick together in schools of sorts, riding the currents in what is known as ‘surface slicks’.

The effects of Microplastics on the Ocean

Within these slicks, amongst the hundreds of thousands of tiny fish, is found incredible amounts of microplastics in which the tiny fish mistake for food.

Millions of fish are consuming microplastics off the Hawaii'n coastline.
Millions of fish are consuming microplastics off the Hawaiian coastline. Photo:  NOAA/David Liittschwager

The circle of life as it currently stands

The fish eat the plastic and are then being eaten by larger fish, birds, and other sea life, causing an unprecedented health concern for sea life and the people consuming fish from these waters. As the fish have been contaminated with microplastics, it’s no doubt that the fish are riddled with toxins from the plastics they’ve consumed due to the chemicals found in the plastic. It goes without saying…it’s a mess.

The proof is in the pudding

According to Jamison Gove in a white paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Seabirds feed on larval fish, adult fish feed on larval fish — it’s a prominent food source.” He also goes on to say, “So that clearly has implications for how plastics can be distributed and quickly get higher up the food chain.”

At just 1mm to 2mm in size, these tiny creatures don’t yet possess the immunity necessary to fight off the bacteria found attached to these plastic bits.  The bacteria have accumulated from time spent floating about the ocean waters.

That’s bad on two fronts: on the one hand, you have countless numbers of baby fish coming into the world with no chance at survival due to this bacterium. This is obviously concerning for re-population matters. On the second hand, they could potentially carry with them micro-toxins, bacterium and other pathogens which can later be transmitted to humans upon consumption. This can quite obviously produce illness and other undesirable effects on humankind.

Size comparison of Larval Fish off the coast o Hawaii. These tiny fish are consuming plastic in mass proportions.
Size comparison of Larval Fish off the coast o Hawaii. These tiny fish are consuming plastic in mass proportions. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jonathan Whitney

What scientists have found

Upon dissection of some of these fish by the NOAA, it was found that the fish contained microscopic bits of plastics, mostly blue in color, which resemble the smaller blue plankton these fish are known to eat. It’s not yet known if these fish are mistaking the plastics for their food, but it’s speculated upon.

In addition, Scientists wonder whether or not the fish with larger eyes and better capability to see are being found with less plastic within their bodies because of that better vision capability. Those with smaller eyes tend to consume more plastic, lending more credibility to the theory that the smaller fish with smaller eyes are in fact mistaking the plastics for food.

Dr. Garrett Williams, in an article published on the NOAA website, states, “We agree that curbing carbon emissions and finding more sustainable ways to fish must be a priority, but our findings suggest further investigation is needed to understand the effects of plastic ingestion by larval fish on individuals and populations. We as a society have the ability to make changes that would alleviate the stress on ecosystems imposed by our activities. We can and should start making those changes now, to limit stress to already severely threatened marine life.”

Some of the different types of larval fish affected by microplastic consumption off the coast of Hawaii
Some of the different types of larval fish affected by microplastic consumption off the coast of Hawaii. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Jonathan Whitney

An uncertain future of life on earth

What will become of the fish of the future is still a mystery. One can safely assume that without the intervention of mass proportions, the outcome won’t fare very well. Human responsibility and proper disposal of recyclables and garbage are key to stopping this very preventable environmental problem. Our ecosystem and food cycle depend on it.

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