Plas­tic pol­lu­tion, and the harm it causes to ma­rine life, has be­come one of the most press­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues of our age.

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

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.ex­­rine

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