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News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Compass, November 21, 2013
MERI’s Coastal Monitoring Project expands to microplastics
2,330 pieces found in 94 samples

MERI’s Abby Barrows explains research

Marine Environmental Research Institute’s Coastal Monitoring and Outreach Coordinator Abby Barrows explain the results from the volunteer monitoring program over the course of the summer on Tuesday, November 12.

Photo by Jessica Brophy Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jessica Brophy

Since 2004, water quality data is collected yearly for Marine Environmental Research Institute’s long-term coastal monitoring project.

For the third year in a row, area volunteers supplemented MERI’s own long-term monitoring efforts. The goal is to engage residents and increase understanding of marine environment health. This year, in addition to water quality, volunteers gathered liters of water to be analyzed for microplastics.

Microplastics are miniscule pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters and mostly invisible to the human eye. They are the product of degraded plastic debris. The data collection takes place from June through October. On November 12, volunteers were invited to MERI’s office for a presentation on the information gathered by volunteers over the summer season.

Gabrielle Wellman collected samples at the East Blue Hill boat ramp. It is her first year volunteering for the program.

“I was curious about it,” said Wellman. As a self-proclaimed introvert, Wellman said she was interested in ways she could volunteer in the community and work on her own.

Jane Osborne, who collected data samples at Sylvester’s Cove in Deer Isle, says for her it’s important to be part of the “citizen scientist” movement. Osborne is active with Island Heritage Trust and Penobscot East Resource Center. “I have seen [MERI President Susan] Shaw talk about microplastics, and I wanted something I could do on my own when I could,” said Osborne.

Each volunteer recorded temperature, pH and the dissolved oxygen levels in the water, as well as the air temperature, weather, wind speed, rainfall and other conditions as the time of sampling. Those elements tell the researchers at MERI something important about the chemistry and makeup of the ocean water.

In terms of the new microplastics research, 94 liters of water were filtered and analyzed over the course of the summer. In those 94 liters, 2,330 pieces of microplastics, or an average of 24 pieces per liter, were found.

“The problem with microplastics is that they attract or are made with toxic chemicals,” said MERI’s Coastal Monitoring and Outreach Coordinator Abby Barrows. “They absorb things like PCBs and DDT, and are small enough to be ingested at very low levels on the food chain. This means they bioaccumulate,” she continued.

Bioaccumulation means small sea creatures like filter feeders ingest the microplastics and then are ingested by larger sea creatures.

Some of the samples had very high counts of microplastics, and three of the 94 samples came back with no microplastics. The sample with the most microplastics in it—456 pieces in one liter—came from Carrying Place Beach in Surry.

The samples are then sorted by shape and color. Most of the pieces of micro plastic are filamentous, or fiber-like. Most are also clear or white. Research will be conducted this winter to try to determine where the microplastics came from. Barrows said some likely suspects are cigarette butts, broken-down fleece and degraded fishing lines.

Barrows said the volunteer program, including the microplastics monitoring, will continue next year. An official call for volunteers, who will need to participate in training in the spring, will go out next year. Anyone interested in participating can contact Barrows at MERI.