An accumulating concern

posted on November 01, 2019

By Diane Seda, Biotechnologist & Sailor & Sandra Cathrine Ness, Co-founder & Impact Manager. Photo: Andreas B.Heide /

“In one drop of water are found the secrets of all the endless oceans” – Kahlil Gibran

Trawling for plastic with the Barba Ocean Lab

Microplastic was the focal point of the Arctic Whale expedition, highlighting how ocean plastic effects the marine ecosystem as it breaks down large size macroplastic, to microplastic and subsequently nanoplastic. Nanoplastic is no longer visible to the naked eye but still very much present.

It is a big unknown how the nanoplastic effects the ecosystem and to what extent it accumulates in the food chain and how this would affect marine life and humans alike. The goal of the Arctic Whale project is to highlight the issue, as well as providing clues to what extent bioaccumulation occurs.

The global ocean currents are moving water all across the globe and with flows traces of human production. To measure how much plastic is floating on the surface of the ocean in a certain area, we used the manta trawl that skims the top of the water as it is dragged along the boat. The manta trawl is a tool to collect microplastic samples we can find in the waters. It really looks like a manta too! It collected anything that was floating on the upper surface.

People often expect the plastic pollution to be toothbrushes and bottle caps, but when we emptied the manta trawl we usually were not looking at plastic pieces, only a mass of microscopic life such as zooplankton and krill, a high-protein food for many fish and whales. A closer look under the microscope revealed a different image — in almost every probe we took there were synthetic microfibers.

These fibers are tiny pieces of plastic coming from our clothes, furniture, but also fishing nets, which shed fibers off with every use. Every time a piece of synthetic clothing is washed, thousands of individual fibers break off and make their way into the environment. It is not just their presence in the water that should worry us, industrially made synthetic materials are also treated with flame retardants. This, as the name suggests, prevents the materials from catching on fire. Plastics contain certain endocrine disrupting chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates and brominated flame retardants. These chemicals are of particular concern: they can affect the unborn fetus, children at early developmental stages and adolescents by interfering with their development and fertility.

The plastic also absorbs many organic contaminants that are readily absorbed by plastics (e.g. DDT, PCBs) from its surrounding. Having all these toxins accumulating in the species is a larger burden.

Especially in top predators such as the orca, the chemicals can accumulate through so-called biomagnification (chemicals passing along the food chain as one animal eats the other). Certain features of endocrine disrupting chemicals differ from general toxicants and become active already at low doses or, more insidiously, have delayed effects that are not evident until later in life or in generations to come. The survival of all species depends on normal development and successful reproduction for which a healthy system is a required.

When larger plastic objects (macroplastic) make their way into the ocean, it is then broken down when exposed to solar UV radiation and oxidation. With further help of wind, waves the plastic objects break further down into smaller pieces and turn into microplastics (< 5mm). Through the forces of the wind, waves, surface and deep currents, the plastic debris are easily redistributed in the ocean. This is why in the most remote, unpopulated places you can still find traces in microplastics. As in our samples, the plastic debris can be found among the zooplankton, the very foundation of all marine animals.

Our biotechnologist, Diane at the Barba Ocean Lab, using her trained eye to analyse the sample.

The data collected this summer is currently being processed and we are waiting for the results. We cannot confirm that it is plastic but to the untrained eye and observations of countless plastic pieces in the water, we believe it Is.

Figure 1: Different sources contribution to the microplastic pollution to the ocean. Larger plastic products breaking down from UV sunlight to smaller pieces, clothes and other fabrics washed shedding thousands of synthetic fibers into the water systems, nurdles (industrial plastic pellets) and personal hygiene products in our households containing microbeads: Source

Figure 2: Manta trawl skimming water surface along the sailing boat to collect floating debris such as microfibers.

There is no easy way to remove the plastic already in the ocean. The problem needs to be tackled at its various sources. While change needs to happen on a political level for a meaningful improvement of the situation, we can already act on an individual level.

You can break certain habits and bring about change in your everyday life, simply by reducing or ideally avoiding single-use plastic whenever possible. Try to wear natural fabrics such as wool and cotton instead of synthetic materials to reduce synthetic fibers making its way to the environment.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.” – William James


Endocrine disrupting chemicals in the marine environment – E. Ingre-Khans, M. Ågerstrand, C. Rudén

Marine Plastic Debris and Microplastics - UNEP