Plastics found washed up on the beach in St Helena. Photo credit: Dave Barnes.

Oct. 9, 2018 – The amount of plastic washing up onto the shores of remote South Atlantic islands is 10 times greater than it was a ecade ago, according to new research published yesterday (8 October) in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists investigating plastics in seas surrounding the remote British Overseas Territories discovered they are invading these unique biologically-rich regions. This includes areas that are established or proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The study shows for the first time that plastic pollution on some remote South Atlantic beaches is approaching levels seen in industrialised North Atlantic coasts.

During four research cruises on the BAS research ship RRS James Clark Ross between 2013 and 2018, a team of researchers from ten organisations sampled the water surface, water column and seabed, surveyed beaches and examined over 2000 animals across 26 different species.

The amount of plastic reaching these remote regions has increased at all levels, from the shore to the seafloor. More than 90% of beached debris was plastic, and the volume of this debris is the highest recorded in the last decade.

Lead author Dr David Barnes from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) explains:

“Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine. Plastic waste has increased a hundred-fold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds.”

The largest concentration of plastic was found on the beaches. In 2018 we recorded up to 300 items per metre of shoreline on the East Falkland and St Helena – this is ten times higher than recorded a decade ago. Understanding the scale of the problem is the first step towards helping business, industry and society tackle this global environmental issue.”

Plastic causes many problems including entanglement, poisoning and starving through ingestion. The arrival of non-indigenous species on floating plastic “rafts” has also been identified as a problem for these remote islands. This study highlights that the impacts of plastic pollution are not only affecting industrialised regions but also remote biodiverse areas, which are established or proposed MPAs.

Andy Schofield, biologist, from the RSPB, who was involved in this research says:

“These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet’s health. It is heart-breaking watching Albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere.  This is a very big wake up call.  Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health.”

Marine plastics threaten giant Atlantic Marine Protected Areas by D.K.A. Barnes, S.A. Morley, J. Bell, P. Brewin, K. Brigden, M. Collins, T. Glass, W.P. Goodall-Copestake, L. Henry, V. Laptikhovsky, N. Piechaud, A. Richardson, P. Rose, C.J. Sands, A. Schofield, R. Shreeve, A. Small, T. Stamford, and B. Taylor is published in the journal Current Biology here.

DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.064

Results from the different marine environment studied:

  • Plastic densities on 2018 beach surveys were as high as 300 items per metre of strandline.
  • On our sea surface debris counts as many as 33 items were observed per km2
  • In the water column the highest densities of plastic were found close to shore around St Helena, at nearly six plastic items per net haul (0.1 item per m3).
  • Plastic was seen on quite a few remote seabeds, most abundantly at Crawford seamount at 0.01 items per m2.

This study was conducted from the RRS James Clark Ross at Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Gough and the Falkland Islands.

This research involved researchers from ten different organisations including British Antarctic Survey, the South Atlantic Environment Research Institute (SAERI), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), Plymouth University, the RSPB, the St Helena National Trust, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Expeditions and experts from UK overseas territory governments.

The four research cruises on the RRS James Clark Ross in which data from this project were collected were funded by Darwin Plus (DEFRA) & PEW Charitable trusts (2013), Darwin Plus & Blue Marine Foundation (2015), National Geographic Pristine Seas (2017) and UK Government Official Development Assistance (UK-ODA) and The Blue Belt Programme (2018).

The Blue Belt Programme is a four year programme (2016 to 2020), delivered by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) with the UK Overseas Territories on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). This programme helps to provide long term protection of over four million square kilometres of marine environment across the UK Overseas Territories. The programme will support the UK Overseas Territories develop, implement and enforce marine protection strategies. Find out more about project here.

British Antarctic Survey (BAS) delivers and enables world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions. Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that uses the Polar Regions to advance our understanding of Earth as a sustainable planet. Through its extensive logistic capability and know how BAS facilitates access for the British and international science community to the UK polar research operation. Numerous national and international collaborations, combined with an excellent infrastructure help sustain a world leading position for the UK in Antarctic affairs.

British Antarctic Survey is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). NERC is part of UK Research and Innovation

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