Marine Plastic Pollution Research in Newfoundland and Canada's North

Lay Summary 

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) identifies marine plastic pollution as a top environmental concern. UNEP's estimate of financial damage from plastics to marine ecosystems is US$13 billion each year, not including loss of commercial fish stock, damaged ocean infrastructure, and rescue costs when plastics entangle vessel engines. Growing evidence indicates that plastics can move toxic chemicals into food webs through animal ingestion, impacting human health.

Despite these hazards, Canada lacks a long-term monitoring program for marine plastics. There is limited data about the quantity and composition of marine plastics in Canadian arctic and sub-arctic regions because of the low human population, limited research infrastructure, and because scientific monitoring protocols are not designed for icy waters and rocky shores. Without knowledge of quantities and providence of plastics, effective interventions are impossible. To address this, we will develop and evaluate three approaches for monitoring marine plastics in northern Canada.

1) Biological monitoring: Northern Fulmars have been adopted by governments in the North Sea (OSPAR) as ideal biological monitors for marine plastics. Our partners in Newfoundland and Nunavut will use Northern Fulmars to evaluate quantities and types of plastics in northern waters and the degree to which marine plastics, which absorb toxic contaminants from seawater, may be leeching contaminants into animal tissues. We will also pilot a survey of plastic ingestion among species targeted by Newfoundland fisheries and test those tissues if high concentrations of plastic ingestion are found. We will also work with the food fishery, hunters, and citizen scientists to collect samples murre, cod, and other animals eaten as country food.

2) Citizen Science Trawls: Surface trawling is a widely used methodology for monitoring marine plastics, but is costly. We will design and test three low-cost trawls (<5 knots) for recreational boaters, fishermen and women, and schools.

3) Shoreline Sampling: There is no beach sample protocol for microplastics (<5 mm) on rocky or icy shores, even though 92% of all marine plastics are microplastics. We will develop protocols for both macro and microplastics that are useable by both citizen and accredited scientists. This will involved creating do-it-yourself technologies as well as protocols.

This three-pronged approach to developing the most effective standardized protocols for work in northern environments will help us assess marine plastic quantities, types, and sources over a range of spatial scales and geographies, cumulating in comprehensive baselines in Canada's northern waters (specifically: Arctic Ocean, Beaufort Sea, Baffin Bay, and Labrador Sea). Once a baseline is established, efficient informed response to threats is possible.

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Environmental Science
St. John's
Newfoundland and Labrador
Pollution Control
Start date 
1 Sep 2015
End date 
31 Aug 2017