The Floating Foundation’s Mobile Research Platform: A Primer on Micro-Plastics
When Ana Markic began her Ph.D with the University of Auckland in collaboration with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), she had a hunch she would find disturbing amounts of micro-plastic pollutants in fish guts. She had read a series of similar published studies with alarming results - many fish species in regions throughout the globe contained micro-plastic pollutants. She set out to fill the research gap in the South Pacific region and found that 33 out of 34 commercial fish species commonly consumed in the Pacific Islands contained micro-plastic debris in their digestive system.
Ana did not know that the weight of those results would lead her to Tonga to execute the final chapter of her Ph.D. In support of impactful environmental initiatives, the Floating Foundation has installed a laboratory aboard S/V ‘Infinity Expedition’ - one that is fully equipped with the tools to collect surface, seafloor, and coastal samples - and one that is equipped to analyse samples as soon as they’re collected.
To understand why Ana and our Floating Foundation research volunteer team are collecting samples throughout the Vava’u region and analysing them for micro-plastics, we first have to understand POPs. A POP, or a persistent organic pollutant, is a common hazardous organic chemical compound that is resistant to biodegradation and thus remains in the environment for long periods of time. POPs bind to the surface of marine plastics, including micro-plastics. When ingested, these pollutants detach from plastics and accumulate in the tissue of fish. These toxic compounds (acting largely as endocrine disruptors) interfere with the healthy functioning of fish endocrine system (hormonal system). The issues that develop within fish as a result are believed to be more physiological than they are physical - significant hormonal changes could lead to adverse behavioural changes, affecting the way fish reproduce or how fit they are to feed or defend themselves.
Ana’s goal is to test the methods used to collect and analyse common oceanic pollutants (i.e. plastic debris). Ana and the Floating Foundation team are actively reworking the way that micro-plastics are collected and analysed, so that future oceanic analyses do not underestimate the amounts of plastics and pollutants that exist. The 2017 Floating Foundation Expedition has allowed this research to include areas containing tropical fish habitats within the Pacific Island region - an area where field and lab equipment, including chemicals, are expensive and limited. Ana’s new methods are more affordable and are based on local resources which should make replicating and expanding this study easily achievable.
Ana and the Floating Foundation expect the new methods to improve the accuracy and ease of implementation of micro-plastics research. Coherent results across the Pacific region could lead to improved international legislation surrounding the distribution and handling of common and harmful plastics.
Furthermore; instead of waiting months for lab results, Ana has immediate access to her data thanks to the Floating Foundation’s on board laboratory and their team of research volunteers.
It is one of the Floating Foundation’s missions to support scientists in understanding our changing environment so that we can advocate for a brighter future. With Ana, we look forward to having a positive overall impact on the environment and our oceans.