NU Academics discover plastic waste in the sea

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Academics at Newcastle University say it is likely that all marine ecosystems have been affected by pollution. Several brand-new species are being discovered that have never been seen in an uncontaminated state.

The research team, led by Dr Alan Jamieson, Dr Will Reid and Dr Thom Linley, have found microplastic ingestion by organisms at a staggering depth of 10,890 metres. Often, these areas are deeper below the surface than Mount Everest is high above it. Plastic has been found for the first time in the Mariana trench and five other areas with a depth of more than 6,000 metres. This prompted the Marine Ecologists to conclude that our deepest waters are becoming the ‘ultimate sink’ for human waste.

Non-biodegradable substances in our clothes, containers and packaging are making their way from our household bins via dump sites and rivers. They eventually break up and sink far down to the ocean floor.
According to the non-profit Surfers Against Sewage, there are approximately 51 trillion microscopic pieces of plastic in our oceans, weighing 269,000 tons. That is around the same as 1345 adult blue whales.
Aware of this critical issue, the academics at Newcastle used state-of-the-art facilities to examine 90 individual animals. Proving that human plastics have reached our deepest abyss, plastic ingestion ranged from 50% in the New Hebrides Trench to 100% at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Dr Jamieson was part of the research team involved in the BBC’s Blue Planet II. He said, “If you contaminate a river, it can be flushed clean. If you contaminate a coastline, it can be diluted by the tides. But, in the deepest point of the oceans, it just sits there. It can’t flush and there are no animals going in and out of those trenches.”
Deep-sea ‘landers’ free-fall to the ocean floor and carry out a variety of monitoring and sampling tasks. It goes without saying, opportunities for dispersal at such depths become ever more limited.
Dr Jamieson went on to say that “The results were both immediate and startling. This type of work requires a great deal of contamination control but there were instances where the fibres could actually be seen in the stomach contents as they were being removed.
“We felt we had to do this study given the unique access we have to some of the most remote places on earth, and we are using these samples to make a poignant statement about mankind’s legacy.”

By Sophie Henderson

Last modified: 19th March 2019

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