Coun­try di­ary

Lang­stone Har­bour, Hamp­shire

The Guardian - Journal - - Letters -

With my back to the sea, I paced out a five-me­tre-wide tran­sect and be­gan me­thod­i­cally sur­vey­ing the shore, work­ing my way up the ex­posed shin­gle to­wards the high­t­ide mark. I was tak­ing part in the Big Sea­weed Search – a cit­i­zen science project that aims to in­ves­ti­gate whether sea tem­per­a­ture rise, ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion and the spread of non-na­tive species is af­fect­ing 14 in­di­ca­tor sea­weeds.

The sea­weed was grow­ing in a three-me­tre-wide band that arced around the bay. Long skeins of pea­green gutweed were in­ter­wo­ven with flat­tened, tawny fronds of blad­der­wrack and spi­ral­wrack, and an un­fa­mil­iar species with tiny, spher­i­cal air blad­ders clus­tered along its wiry branches. Ac­cord­ing to my field guide, it was Ja­panese wire­weed, an in­va­sive alien.

The weed de­posited along the stran­d­line was sun-bleached and stud­ded with ma­rine de­tri­tus – dead crabs, cut­tle­bones, spongy balls of com­mon whelk egg-cases and the ubiq­ui­tous lit­ter of sin­gleuse plas­tics. Peel­ing back the veg­e­ta­tion, I ex­posed a puls­ing mass of shel­ter­ing sand­hop­pers

( Orch­es­tia gam­marel­lus ). With their semi-translu­cent seg­mented bod­ies and over­sized hind legs, they looked like com­pos­ite crea­tures – part shrimp, part wood­louse, part flea. They can jump up to 30cm by flex­ing and re­leas­ing their ab­domen and flap-like tail, and I could feel them ric­o­chet­ing off my shins as they leapt for cover.

Om­niv­o­rous scav­engers, sand­hop­pers are na­ture’s refuse work­ers, help­ing to break down the vast quan­ti­ties of dead and de­cay­ing ma­te­rial washed up on our shores. How­ever, these am­phipods may ac­tu­ally be con­tribut­ing to the spread of sec­ondary mi­croplas­tics. Sci­en­tists at the Univer­sity of Ply­mouth dis­cov­ered that they could shred a sin­gle plas­tic car­rier bag into 1.75m mi­cro­scopic fragments, and found mi­croplas­tics in their fae­cal mat­ter.

By the time I reached the top of the beach, I had picked up a take­away cup lid, a su­per­mar­ket bag, a sand­wich wrap­per, two de­flated bal­loons, three drinks bot­tles, a shot­gun car­tridge case and a sheaf of straws and cot­ton-bud sticks. Claire Stares

ILLUSTRATION: CLIF­FORD HARPER

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