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Marine Science


High-Risk Zones Identified

High-risk zones identified where plastic litter threatens North Atlantic marine life. A new study, led by Plymouth Marine Laboratory, has revealed five high-risk zones where floating plastic litter poses the greatest risk to whales, dolphins and seabirds of the North Atlantic.

Marine plastic litter is a truly global pollution problem. An estimated 19 to 23 metric tons of plastic waste entered the world’s aquatic ecosystems in 2016 and this figure is predicted to triple by 2030.

Land-based sources of plastic are thought to account for about 80% of plastic pollution in the marine environment, with single use items such as plastic bags, bottles, wrappers, food containers and cutlery among the most common items found. These items are often transported far from their original source via a complex system of ocean currents, making this transboundary pollutant even more challenging to monitor and manage.

Over 4000 marine and coastal species are known to be affected in some way by marine plastic debris, with some species more sensitive to plastic pollution than others and therefore, at greater risk.

This study assessed the risks of land-derived plastic litter to major groups of marine megafauna (seabirds, cetaceans, pinnipeds, elasmobranchs, turtles, sirenians, tuna and billfish) and a selection of productive and biodiverse habitats (coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass, saltmarsh and kelp beds).

The team modelled the transport of plastic from 16 countries surrounding the North Atlantic, releasing billions of virtual plastic particles from rivers between 2000 to 2015. The movement of these particles was driven by surface currents and wind, and after a 15 year run, the model showed where plastic was accumulating.

To assess risk, modelled plastic concentrations were combined with the distribution and vulnerability of various megafauna groups and shallow water habitats. Vulnerability scores were devised by assessing the extent of documented ingestion, entanglement or smothering of land-based plastic.