Could tiny pieces of plastic in fish become a big problem for people?

Image Source: USDA / MGN

WILMINGTON, NC. (WECT) -- Many people would agree that plastic waste is a problem.

The sheer amount of plastic thrown away by humans is staggering and easy to see on roadsides, in landfills and oceans.

Plastic bags and water and soda bottles are easily identifiable forms of plastic trash but what happens when those items break down into what are called microplastics?

The short answer is that animals eat these plastic pieces less than five millimeters in size, and a research team at UNCW is studying how contaminants in the plastic might be transferred from prey to black sea bass.

"The goal is to assess how these black sea bass might be impacted by plastic pollution," said Cheyenne Stienbarger, a masters student at UNCW who is part of the research team. "Black sea bass are a commercially and recreationally important species along the east coast, particularly in North Carolina. We're really hoping to get a better understanding of how these fish might be impacted."

Funded through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program grant, the project began in the fall of 2017 and is expected to wrap up in February or March 2020. NC State and Oregon State researchers are assisting UNCW's group and the NC Division of Marine Fisheries helped provide the fish for study.

At UNCW, around 100 black sea bass off the NC coast were sampled. Three big pieces of plastic were found in three fish but around 70 potential microplastics were discovered in the digestive tracts.

And the fish aren't just eating floating plastic pieces or those that have settled on the ocean floor.

"From our laboratory studies, we have found the fish are ingesting more plastics from prey compared to the plastics from water," said Jincy Joseph, a chemist and post-doctorate associate working on the NOAA project.

It stands to reason if harmful chemicals from plastics can be transferred on the small fish to bigger fish food chain, they might also be transferred on the fish to human one.

However, Joseph said there is not enough data to support whether there’s a significant effect on humans.

Stienbarger, who is scheduled to finish her masters studies in December, said she is proud to be working on a project of this scope.

"I've always been interested in how humans can impact ecosystems and species so this has allowed me to see firsthand (that) plastic is a problem that we created and now it's really important — especially these commercial fishes that people eat on a regular basis — to see how they'll be affected," Stienbarger said. "It's really rewarding to be a part of this no matter what the results are."

To learn more about the project, click here.

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