PLASTIC POLLUTION IN OUR OCEANS TARGETED BY EXETER SCIENTISTS
Plastic pollution, and the harm it causes to marine life, has become one of the most pressing environmental issues of our age.
Blue Planet II, the award-winning BBC series narrated by Sir David Attenborough, hit home the message that discarded plastic poses one of the greatest threats to our oceans. Associate Professor Steve Simpson, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, was a scientific adviser on the popular documentary which has been watched by over a quarter of a billion people. The final episode featured his research on the impact that man-made noise, such as motorboats, has on the behaviour of clownfish, the species popularised in the children’s film Finding Nemo. Professor Simpson is one of an expert team of marine biologists and eco-toxicologists, at the University of Exeter, dedicating their lives to identifying and finding solutions to threats to the marine environment.
Professor Simpson explained: “Blue Planet II brought stunning, spellbinding and sensitive animals into our hearts and minds. But it also showed many ways in which we are damaging our fragile yet essential marine environment. There has been a global reaction to better protect the marine world. With deeper scientific understanding we can manage the threats and find solutions that help save our seas.”
The Exeter Marine team are internationally recognised for their work on microplastics: Dr Ceri Lewis
said: “There are now 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, and an estimated 10% of the plastics we produce ends up in the sea. At the University of Exeter we are researching the impact of microplastics — pieces of plastic less than 5mm in size — on the health of marine animals. Our research has shown that tiny marine animals called zooplankton, which are very important food sources for many larger animals like fish and whales, eat these microplastics because they mistake them for food.” Exeter marine biologists have been taking samples of sea water and marine life around the world to test for plastic and assess its reach. So far, they have found fragments of plastic in every shellfish and nearly every sample of water they have tested. Policy makers searching for solutions to tackling plastic pollution and its consequences regularly consult the Exeter team on the science. A committee of MPs in the UK House of Commons heard evidence from Professor Tamara Galloway, an Exeter eco-toxicologist, on the impact of microplastics. The report the Parliamentary committee produced, which cited Professor Galloway’s findings, led to the British government banning the use of micro-beads, which were commonly used in facial scrubs and toothpastes. Professor Galloway is recognised as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the impact of plastics, including microplastics. In April this year Professor Galloway and Dr Lewis and their team won the Research Impact award in the Guardian newspaper’s University Awards, for her work on plastics. Professor Galloway said: “
It has been quite humbling to see our research resonate so strongly with the public, right through from committed environmentalists to grandmothers and primary school children.” Faced with the extent of plastic pollution, Governments across the globe, from America to Vanuatu are actively taking the initiative to stem its tide. The UK government has just launched a consultation on banning plastic straws, drink stirrers and cotton buds in a bid to protect the oceans. Exeter conservationists have been highlighting the threat of plastic pollution for many years, and are examining innovative solutions to tackling it. The Exeter Marine team say biodegradeable alternatives to plastic are one way to protect marine life. Brendan Godley, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Exeter, recently published research on the impact of plastic and other discarded waste on marine turtles. “
Plastic rubbish in the oceans, including lost or discarded fishing gear which is not biodegradable, is a major threat to marine turtles,” he said. “We need to cut the level of plastic waste and pursue biodegradable alternatives if we are to tackle this grave threat to the welfare of marine life and the degradation of our blue planet.” Find out more at www.exeter.ac.uk/marine