Crossing the border for plastic pollution

By Nina Wootton, PhD candidate

The first three months of 2019 saw me be lucky enough to travel and live at the University of South Pacific in Suva, Fiji to complete sampling for one of my PhD chapters. I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship from the Association of Commonwealth Universities to travel to another commonwealth university to complete research on plastic pollution. My PhD research is focusing on microplastic in seafood, and the effects that these tiny pieces of plastic may be having on fish. Primarily, I am completing this by investigating the abundance of plastic in the guts of fish from a variety of different species, in a variety of different locations.

Travelling to a different country creates challenges of its own, and this is without including the research aspect! Prior to moving to Fiji I had a completely different picture of what it would be like. I imagined myself in ‘Fiji time,’ completing a few hours of work a day before heading down for a dip in the 28-degree crystal clear water with multiple cocktails in hand. This was far from reality. Suva is a busy, bustling metropolitan city, and far from the tropical paradise that I imagined. The hard work ethic of all the researchers and students shocked me (in a good way) and I was pleasantly surprised with the amazing USP facilities.

During my three months in Fiji I sampled over 130 fish, testing their stomach contents for microplastic abundance. I sampled four species (mullet, red snapper, coral trout and goat fish), and collected around 30 fish from each. I spent the majority of my first month researching market availability and fish species, while my second month was mostly spent in the lab, dissecting the fish and recording life history and general information on them. The remainder of my time was mostly spent looking at my samples under the microscope, counting, categorising and collecting all the pieces of plastic that were in the fish guts.

Following my return to Australia, I travelled to Queensland to collect samples of fish from the same species. We have now analysed all the results and have found that Australia has slightly higher numbers of plastic inside their fish compared to Fiji. Interestingly, the types of plastics between countries were very different. Australia had fish with mostly filaments inside their gut, which come from synthetic clothing. While Fiji had mostly pieces of film, which are commonly pieces of broken down single-use plastic bans. These results could be a reflection of the differing legislations and lifestyles between the two countries.

I have to say, despite my time in Fiji not being the ‘tropical paradise’ that I expected it was so, so much better than that! The connections I have made and the life lessons that I have learnt have well and truly been amazing. From the smile that came across the face of my local fish mongers when they saw me enter the market, to the amazing collaborations and friendships that have been formed with my colleagues at USP. The fellowship was definitely a huge success for me personally. I definitely felt myself grow as a scientist during my time in Fiji, as I became more independent and confident in my methodology. This fellowship has given me opportunities to live and grow in a different culture, meet amazing scientists and enjoy some of the best three months of my life. The networking opportunities that I have gained through the fellowship had allowed me to establish connections that I hope will last my whole career. The ongoing collaboration between USP and the University of Adelaide will most definitely be maintained, and I will definitely be keeping in close contact with my supervisor from USP, Professor Marta Ferreira as we work through the data, and for any future ideas. I have also already been in close communication with other members of their plastic pollution team, as they are now both colleagues and close friends! Thanks to USP, ACU, Marta and Bronwyn and all the lovely people at USP who helped me out during my stay.

If this fellowship taught me anything, it was that if we are going to beat the plastic pollution problem, we are going to have to do it together!