Plastics in the Oceans

Plastics in the Oceans

Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

February 2018 saw the publication of an important study in the journal Frontiers of Marine Science. It described the important research carried out by marine scientists of the National University of Ireland (Galway) on the amount of plastic in fish in the northwest Atlantic. The scientists travelled on board the Irish Marine Institute’s research vessel the Celtic Explorer. What they found did not make pleasant reading.   During the course of their research in the Northwest Atlantic, the scientists took fish from mid-water trawls from the ocean thousands of miles from land and 600m deep in the ocean.

The species which were taken from the oceans would not be known to the majority of fishermen. Among them were three types of Lanternfish, Rakery Beaconlamp, Stout Sawpalate and Scaly Dragonfish. The fish ranged in size form 3.5cm to 59cm. Later, the scientists studied the fish in the laboratory in NUIG and checked for micro-plastics in the stomach of the fish. One small Lanternfish, just 4.5 centimetres long, had 13 micro-plastics in its stomach. The scientists were quite amazed to find that more than 73per cent of the fish contained plastic. This is a greater frequency of micro-plastics in fish found anywhere in the world. Naturally it should be seeing as a global call to protect our oceans from pollution before it is too late.

Micro-plastics are small plastic fragments which originate from the breakdown of larger plastic items entering the sea. Micro-plastics are the result of breakdown of larger plastic items in the ocean, or from wastewater, containing plastic clothing fibres or micro-beads from shampoos and other personal care products. Dr Tom Doyle co-author of the study says that it is “worrying to think that our daily activities, such as washing our synthetic clothes in our washing machines, results in billions of micro-plastics entering our oceans through our waste water stream that may eventually end up in these deep-sea fishes.”[1]

Previous studies have shown that micro-plastics can be ingested by many marine animals from plankton to worms to fish. Ingesting plastics causes physical damage in marine life and also inflammation of the intestines. Many varieties of plastics are extremely toxic because of additives added to the plastics during its manufacture. The danger, therefore, is not only confined to the creature that eats the plastic but can also transfer up the food chain as they are preyed upon by other species, including human beings.

The scientists asked themselves the question, why is it the fish which live far from land and inhabit the deep ocean have so much plastic in their intestines? Alina Wieczorek, the author of the study in the Frontiers in Marine Science explains that “Deep-water fish migrate to the surface at night to feed on plankton and this is likely when they are exposed to micro-plastics.”[2]

Dr Tom Doyle, a co-author of the study from the Ryan Institute at NUI Galway, said: “While there is clearly a concern that the ingestion of micro-plastics with associated toxins may have harmful effects on these fishes, or even the fishes that feed on them, our study highlights that these seemingly remote fishes located thousands of kilometres from land and 600m down in the ocean are not isolated from pollution.”[3] The marine scientists acknowledge that the sample of fish may have come from a particularly polluted area of the ocean where plastics accumulate due to certain tides and currents. Ms Wieczorek explained that NUIG will continue to investigate the impact of micro-plastics on organism in the open ocean. The NUIG research was carried out within the PLASTOX project, a European collaborative effort to investigate impacts of micro-plastics in the marine environment under the JPI Oceans framework and supported by the iCRAG (Irish Centre for Research in Applied Geoscience) project, funded by Science Foundation Ireland.

At present, the Labour Party and the Green Party have a number of bills before the Dail (the Irish Parliament) proposing a ban on micro-plastics. Unbelievably the Government has cited technical issues around definitions and the requirement to seek derogations from EU market rules for not legislating to date. This is another example which shows that the current Irish government’s record on ecology is lukewarm. Should the Churches be involved in protecting our oceans? Has a Justice and Peace group in any parish or diocese challenged the fact that our retail stores still force us to use single-use plastics?   Isn’t it time we told them that we will not shop in their stores until them abandon their use of plastics?


[1] Niall Murray NUI Galway finds micro-plastics in 73% of deep-water fish,” The Irish Examiner, February 18th 2018. https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/nui-galway-study-finds-microplastics-in-73-of-deep-water-fish-828730.html

[2] Kevin O’Sullivan, “Over 70% of fish had ingested plastics, NUIG research finds,” The Irish Times, February 19th 2018, page 1.

[3]Niall Murray NUI Galway finds micro-plastics in 73% of deep-water fish,” The Irish Examiner, February 18th 2018. https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/ireland/nui-galway-study-finds-microplastics-in-73-of-deep-water-fish-828730.html

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  1. Frances Burke says:

    The issue of ridding our oceans of plasic is been tackled head on by a 23 year old Dutch inventor called Boyan Slat. He plans to rid the Pacific Ocean of 50% of its Garbage Patch in 5 years. He predicts that by employing the technology he has invented and by reducing the of amount of plastic produced on land will lead to a plastic free ocean by 2050

    Check him out on google or follow him on Twitter under @TheOceanCleanup.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy says:

    It’s not just in the oceans. It’s also in our drinking water.
    Tap water has been found to contain plastics:
    “More than 80 percent of the samples we collected on five continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibers.”
    And bottled water?
    “93% of bottled water showed some sign of microplastic contamination.”
    Bottled water is at about twice the level found in tap water.
    The Irish Independent reported on this on 6 September 2017: “Our drinking water is widely contaminated with tiny bits of plastic.”

  3. Frances Burke says:

    That is very frightening reading Padraig. I was totally unaware that I was ingesting tiny bits of plastic from tap water. I was aware that it is unsafe to drink water from a plastic bottle that has been left in a car and exposed to direct sunlight (we are all aware that plastic reacts to heat) as the plastic can leach into the water. I was also told that you should never eat food which has been heated in a microwave in a plastic container as the plastic can leach into the food. Always take food out of plastic containers prior to heating them in a microwave. Also, make your porridge in a glass container rather than a plastic one!!

    There is a huge lack of education around all of this, and I would suggest schools need to take on this challenge immediately. The Pope is genuinely concerned about environmental issues, so I can see no reason why the Church cannot use its global reach to educate on these type of issues.

    Prevention of Plastic Pollution needs to be addressed, and education is the only solution.

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