Plastics truly are ubiquitous in the marine environment

By Lisa Hildebrand, MSc student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As I enter my second term at OSU as a Master’s student, the ideas and structure of my thesis are slowly coming together. As of right now, my plan is to have two data chapters: The first chapter will assess the quality of zooplankton prey gray whales have access to along the Oregon coast, by looking at energetic value and microplastic content. I will contemplate about how my results potentially affect gray whale health. The second chapter will investigate fine-scale foraging and space use of gray whales in the Port Orford area to determine whether individual specialisation exists.

Fig 1. What it feels like when you start a literature review. Source: Harvard Blogs.

When I first started digging into the scientific literature to prepare for writing my thesis proposal (which is still underway but I’m getting close to the end of a first draft…), one sentence that I seemed to stumble across more often than not was “Marine plastics are ubiquitous” or “Plastics have become ubiquitous in the marine environment” or some other, very similar, iteration of that statement (e.g. Machovsky-Capuska et al. 2019; Eriksen et al. 2014; Fendall & Sewell 2009).

Many of the papers I first read were review papers on microplastics that mostly discussed general concepts like dispersal mechanisms, trophic transfer, or how microplastics become degraded. While I often think of review papers as treasure chests, since they neatly and succinctly summarise an often complicated and busy area of research into just a few pages, sometimes the fine-scale detail can go missing. Therefore, when reading these review papers, I wasn’t learning the in depth details about specific studies where microplastics had been detected in a group of individuals, population or species. So I felt the statement “Plastics are ubiquitous” was just a good (and pretty dramatic) opening line for a paper. However, once I delved into the studies on single species, I was overwhelmed by the amount of results that GoogleScholar spit out at me. If you type “microplastics marine” into the search bar, you’ll get about 7,650 results. This amount might not sound like a lot, especially if you compare it to say “gray whale”, which generates 96,600 results. Yet, the microplastic extraction method typically used was only developed in 2004 (Thompson et al. 2004). Hence, in a span of just 15 years, over 7,000 studies have detected microplastics in over 660 marine organisms (Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity 2012) – a fact I find extremely troubling.

Fig 2. Graphic explaining how plastics don’t go away. Source: Biotecnika.

Microplastics are most commonly viewed as particles <5 mm in size (though there is some contention on this size classification, e.g. Claessens et al. 2013). Microplastics arise from several sources, including fragmentation of larger plastics by UV photo-degradation, wave action and physical abrasion, loss of pre-production pellets (nurdles) and polystyrene beads from shipping vessels, waste water discharge containing microbeads used in cosmetics and microfibers released during the washing of textiles and run-off from land (Nelms et al. 2018). Their small size makes these persistent particles bioavailable to ingestion by a variety of marine taxa, ranging from small prey organisms such as zooplankton, to large megafauna such as whales.

Zooplankton are at the base of marine food webs and are therefore consumed in large quantities by a large number of consumers. The propensity of zooplankton to feed in surface waters makes them highly susceptible to encountering and ingesting microplastics as this is where these synthetic particles are highly abundant (Botterell et al. 2018). Microplastics have been detected in zooplankton from the Northeast Pacific Ocean (Desforges et al. 2015), northern South China Sea (Sun et al. 2017), and Portuguese coast (Frias et al. 2014). Additionally, there is documented overlap between microplastic and zooplankton occurrence at many more locations (e.g. North Western Mediterranean Sea, Collignon et al. 2012; Baltic Sea, Gorokhova 2015; Arctic Ocean, Lusher et al. 2015a). As microplastics research is still in its relative infancy, the extent to which microplastics are ingested by zooplankton and the consequences of this behaviour are uncertain. Nevertheless, exposure to microplastics could lead to entanglement of particles within feeding appendages and/or block internal organs, which may result in reduced feeding, poor overall health, injury and death (Desforges et al. 2015). Though a lab study has found that microplastics are expelled by zooplankton after ingestion, the gut-retention times varied between species, and there is the potential risk of exposure to toxins that leech off of particles while in the body (Cole et al. 2013; the below video is from the afore-mentioned study showing how plankton eat plastics, which are illuminated in fluorescent green).

The large knowledge gap regarding the health implications indicates a strong need for more laboratory studies that investigate the long-term effects of persistent exposure to microplastics on lower trophic organisms, as well as continued short-term experiments that examine whether different zooplankton species are affected differently, since morphologies and life-histories vary widely.

Let’s take a step back and re-focus our lens onto a marine taxa that is much, much bigger in size than a zooplankton: cetaceans. Plastic debris has been documented in the stomachs of stranded individuals of several cetacean species (See Baulch & Perry 2014 for a review), however findings of microplastics in cetaceans are less common. Since cetaceans consume large amounts of prey a day, up to several tons daily for some baleen whales, the likelihood that they are ingesting microplastics through their prey is relatively high (Nelms et al. 2018). Therefore the low number of reported cases is again likely due to the relative novelty of microplastic detection methods. Despite the paucity of studies, microplastics have been found in a True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus, Lusher et al. 2015b), a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae, Besseling et al. 2015) and an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin (Sousa chinensis, Zhu et al. 2018), showing that microplastic ingestion by cetaceans does occur. Whether these individuals actively (i.e. active feeding) or passively (i.e. uptake through prey consumption) consumed the microplastics, or inhaled them at the water-air interface, is unknown. As with zooplankton, the short- and long-term impacts of ingesting microplastics by marine mammals is also unknown, though impacts on survival, feeding and uptake of toxins are all possibilities.

Fig 3. Example of a light trap sample collected off the Newport coast. Source: L. Torres.

The data collection and analysis I am doing for my thesis will hopefully fill small pockets in these large knowledge gaps. I hope to be able to quantify the extent of microplastic pollution among zooplankton species in nearshore Oregon waters. By comparing samples from several years, months and locations, I will determine whether microplastic loads vary spatially and temporally. Since their abundance and presence have been described as being patchy due to the influence of oceanographic and weather conditions (GESAMP 2016), it would seem reasonable to assume that there will be variation. But, results are a ways away as we have not even started our microplastic extraction techniques, which involves digesting samples in potassium hydroxide solution, incubating them at 50ºC for 48-72 hours, sorting through the dissolved material to identify potential plastics and sending them away for analysis. We first have to work our way through jars upon jars of unopened zooplankton light trap samplesthat need to be sorted by species. I am thankfully joined by undergraduate Robyn Norman who has already assisted this project immensely over the last two years with her zooplankton sorting prowess. So in case anyone wants to come looking for us over the next few weeks, you’ll find both Robyn and me sitting in front of a laminar flow hood in the lab of ecotoxicologist Dr. Susanne Brander, with whom we are collaborating on the microplastics portion of my thesis.



Baulch, S., & Perry, C., Evaluating the impacts of marine debris on cetaceans. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2014. 80(1-2): 210-221.

Besseling, E., et al., Microplastic in a macro filter feeder: humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 95: 248-252.

Botterell, Z.L.R., et al., Bioavailability and effects of microplastics on marine zooplankton: a review. Environmental Pollution, 2018. 245: 98-110.

Claessens, M., et al., New techniques for the detection of microplastics in sediments and field collected organisms. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2013. 70(1-2): 227-233.

Cole, M., et al., Microplastic ingestion by zooplankton. Environmental Science & Technology, 2013. 47(12): 6646-6655.

Collignon, A., et al., Neustonic microplastic and zooplankton in the North Western Mediterranean Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2012. 64(4): 861-864.

Desforges, JP.W., et al., Ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015. 69(3): 320-330.

Eriksen, M., et al., Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans: more than 5 trillion plastic pieces weighing over 250,000 tons afloat at sea. PLoS ONE, 2014.

Fendall, L.S., & Sewell, M.A., Contributing to marine pollution by washing your face: microplastics in facial cleansers. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2009. 58(8): 1225-1228.

Frias, J.P.G.L., et al., Evidence of microplastics in samples of zooplankton from Portuguese coastal waters. Marine Environmental Research, 2014. 95: 89-95.

GESAMP, Sources, fates and effects of microplastics in the marine environment: part 2 of a global assessment. Second United Nations Environment Assembly, 2016.

Gorokhova, E., Screening for microplastic particles in plankton samples: how to integrate marine litter assessment into existing monitoring programs? Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2015. 99(1-2): 271-275.

Lusher, A.L., et al., Microplastics in Arctic polar waters: the first reported values of particles in surface and sub-surface samples. Scientific Reports, 2015a. 5: 14947.

Lusher, A.L., et al., Microplastic and macroplastic ingestion by a deep diving, oceanic cetacean: the True’s beaked whales Mesoplodon mirus. Environmental Pollution, 2015b. 199: 185-191.

Machovsky-Capuska, G.E., et al., A nutritional perspective on plastic ingestion in wildlife. Science of the Total Environment, 2019. 656: 789-796.

Nelms, S.E., et al., Investigating microplastic trophic transfer in marine top predators. Environmental Pollution, 2018. 238: 999-1007.

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel – GEF (2012), Impacts of marine debris on biodiversity: current status and potential solutions. Montreal, Technical Series. 67: 1-61.

Sun, X., et al., Ingestion of microplastics by natural zooplankton groups in the northern South China Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2017. 115(1-2): 217-224.

Thompson, R.C., et al., Lost at sea: where is all the plastic? Science, 2004. 304(5672): 838.

Zhu, J., et al., Cetaceans and microplastics: First report of microplastic ingestion by a coastal delphinid, Sousa chinensis. Science of the Total Environment, 2018. 659: 649-654.

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