In the Spring of 2017, on a remote beach in British Columbia, Canada, a marine biologist discovered examples of a previously unknown species of microscopic flatworm. Examining them under the microscope (they are 0.5mm long – about ⅙th the size of a sesame seed) back at the lab, she noted a helmet-like feature of its anatomy and decided to name the new creature Baicalellia daftpunka , after the French electronic music duo, Daft Punk, who always wear helmets when they perform. Also under the microscope, examining one of the samples, she found that what had been ingested, and was now blocking the gut, was a tiny piece of plastic.
The problem of plastic in the oceans has been publicised a lot recently, mainly due to the TV series Blue Planet II. It is estimated that by 2050, measured by weight, there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
The oceans are important for many reasons, and one of them is food. It is the single most important source of protein for humans, but wild fish are being extracted at 2½ times the level of sustainability, with many stocks close to collapse, e.g. bluefin tuna populations have reduced by 90% over the last 50 years. More and better farming of fish is necessary as it is a far more efficient source of protein, when farmed responsibly, than for example, beef. A pound of beef take 8-9lbs of feed and 8,000 litres of fresh water to produce. A pound of fish takes 1lb of feed and no water – a fish swims in water, but barely drinks it. And the need for more farmed fish is not just down to the exhaustion of wild stocks, but also to the pressure of human population – by 2050, there will be 2.5 billion more people on the planet than there are now. Land-based resources will not be sufficient to provide additional protein for them at current levels of consumption.
The increased need for fish exacerbates the potential impact of the risk posed by plastic. Plastic breaks down in salt water and ultraviolet light into tiny micro-plastics such as that found in daftpunka. There are estimated to be 52 trillion pieces of micro-plastic already in the oceans, and the amount is increasing. Micro-plastics also absorb toxins, and these plastic particles are easily swallowed by fish. In some cases, it has already been observed that the plastic particles (plus toxins) have passed from the gut of the fish into the flesh. If that happens generally, the plastic and toxins may then be concentrated in the bodies of those at the top of the food-chain – humans.
Story sources: University of British Columbia, TED talks, The Economist newspaper.