Plastic pollution has been found in seawater, on beaches and in marine life around the Galapagos Islands.
A new study by the University of Exeter, the Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT) and the Galapagos Science Center has found plastic in all marine habitats on San Cristobal Island, where Charles Darwin first landed in Galapagos.
More than 400 plastic particles per square meter of beach were found in the most polluted hotspots – including a beach used by the rare ‘Godzilla’ marine iguana.
Plastic was also found in more than half of the marine invertebrates studied (such as barnacles and urchins, as pictured above), as well as on the seafloor.
The findings suggest that most of the plastic pollution in Galapagos – a world-famous haven for biodiversity – arrives from ocean currents.
The study also identifies the marine vertebrates of the Galapagos most at risk of swallowing or entanglement in plastic, including scalloped hammerheads, whale sharks, sea lions and sea turtles.
“The pristine image of Galapagos may give the impression that the islands are somehow protected from plastic pollution, but our research clearly shows that this is not the case,” said Dr. Ceri Lewis of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute.
“The highest levels of plastic we found were on east-facing beaches, which are exposed to pollution carried by the eastern Pacific Ocean on the Humboldt Current.
These east-facing beaches include Punta Pitt, a highly polluted The place where Godzilla marine iguanas live, which – like so many Galapagos wildlife – cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
“There are fewer than 500 Godzilla marine iguanas and it is worrying that they live alongside this high level of plastic pollution.”
Speaking of microplastic particles found in marine invertebrates, lead author Dr. Jen Jones of GCT: “These animals are a critical part of food webs that support the larger species famous in and around the Galapagos Islands.
The potential health effects of plastic ingestion on marine animals are largely unknown and more research is needed.”
The findings of the study include:
- Only 2 percent of the ‘macroplastic’ (items and fragments larger than 5 mm) was identified as coming from the islands. The actual figure could be higher, but the findings strongly suggest that most plastic arrives through ocean currents.
- These macroplastics were found on 13 of the 14 sandy beaches surveyed, with a total of 4,610 items. Large microplastics (1-5 mm) sieved from the surface of 50 mm of sand were found at 11 of the 15 sites tested.
- Significant accumulations of plastic have been found in important habitats, including rocky lava coasts and mangroves.
- Microplastics were found in low concentrations in all seabed and seawater samples, with higher concentrations in the harbor indicating some local input.
- All seven marine invertebrate species studied were found to contain microplastics. 52 percent of the 123 people tested contained plastic.
To analyze the potential impact of plastic on Galapagos marine vertebrates, such as sea lions and turtles, the researchers reviewed 138 studies of plastic uptake and entanglement among such species worldwide.
They also considered where in the Galapagos each species occurs and considered their conservation status on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Based on this, the study identifies 27 species that need to be urgently monitored and mitigated. dr. Jones, who led the study as part of her PhD in Exeter, said, “Our study shows how far plastic pollution travels and how it pollutes every part of marine ecosystems.
Given the level of pollution we have encountered in this remote location, it is clear that plastic pollution must stop at its source. You cannot solve the problem by just cleaning beaches.
Dr. David Santillo, of the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter, said, “This situation will only get worse if we don’t drastically change our use of plastic.”
Last year, the research team won a £3.3 million grant from the UK government to research and tackle plastic pollution in the Eastern Pacific.
However, the grant has since been cut by 64 percent and could be canceled altogether after the first year due to cuts in Official Development Assistance (ODA) announced in March 2021.
The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment entitled “Plastic contamination of a Galapagos island (Ecuador) and the relative risks to native marine species.
” In December 2020, a study showed that plastic waste can travel thousands of miles through rivers and oceans in just a few months.
This oceanic mobility was amply illustrated in April this year, when a separate study found that an overboard shipping container in the North Atlantic led to printer cartridges washing up everywhere from the coast of Florida to northern Norway.
The question of how much plastic pollution ends up in the world’s oceans continues to irritate environmentalists, although it is now widely believed that most plastic ends up there via rivers.
Technology is being developed and further refined to clean up the waterways that transport plastic pollution to the sea. A possible natural solution was suggested earlier this year.
In January, a study published in Scientific Reports suggested that planting underwater seagrass meadows could effectively capture, extract and transport plastic waste from the sea to shore, helping to remove the plastic waste from the sea.
Meanwhile, sufficiently motivated groups of people continue to act directly against the flow of plastic waste. In April, UK charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) launched its ‘Million Mile Beach Clean’ initiative, which aims to tackle the threat of plastic pollution to marine life.