Fishing for solutions to the marine plastic problem
Plastic pollution has increased significantly in recent decades, and its presence in the marine environment has increased alongside this. Once plastic waste is disposed of it can enter the ocean via a variety of pathways, and here it can break into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics (plastic<5mm). These tiny bits of plastic are particularly problematic for marine life, as they can be ingested and potentially cause health issues or transfer dangerous chemicals.
Marine life, such as fish, are ingesting microplastic, including species which are commonly caught and sold for human consumption. This is where my PhD research was focused - I figured out the extent and type of microplastic in fish purchased through seafood markets across Oceania, specifically Australia and Fiji.
Overall, I found between twenty and sixty percent of the fish sampled in Australia and Fiji had microplastic in their guts, with an average of one piece per fish. There were differences between locations, species, habitat and diet. This is no surprise, as by combining all the global literature currently published on microplastic presence in fish I found that 49% of all fish world-wide have plastic, with an average of 3.5 pieces per fish. Therefore, compared to global plastic ingestion, Australian fish are relatively clean, with less plastic present.
Clearly this research has shown that fish in Australia and across the Oceanic region are ingesting microplastic, and this has the potential to cause negative effects to the seafood industry, and consumers alike. Thus, to take positive actions towards this pervasive problem I wanted to identify solutions to limit the impact plastic may be having on the seafood industry.
I interviewed both commercial and recreational fishers and fishmongers finding that education throughout this industry is key in moving forward to limit plastic use. Additionally, fishers revealed they would be willing to trial plastic-free fishing equipment if it were available and highlighted that disposal facilities at popular fishing locations needed to be improved. The information discovered from this work can be used to help lower the overall impact of plastic on our environment, creating healthier oceans, and cleaner seafood.
All four chapters of my PhD are published - see details below.
For more information see
Wootton, N, M Ferreira, P Reis-Santos, BM Gillanders. 2021. A comparison of microplastic in fish from Australia and Fiji. Frontiers in Marine Science 8:690991. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2021.690991.
Wootton, N, P Reis-Santos, N Dowsett, A Turnbull, BM Gillanders. 2021. Low abundance of microplastics in commercially caught fish across southern Australia. Environmental Pollution 290: 118030.
Wootton, N, P Reis-Santos, BM Gillanders. 2021. Microplastic in fish – a global synthesis. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 31: 753-771.
Wootton, N, M Nursey-Bray, P Reis-Santos, BM Gillanders. 2022. Perceptions of plastic pollution in a prominent fishery: Building strategies to inform management. Marine Policy 135: 104846.