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Measuring marine microplastics

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Nonprofit seeks with lab for ocean data collection

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BOZEMAN/BLUE HILL, Maine – Scientists at the Marine Environmental Research Institute in Maine have found microplastics in nearly every liter of ocean water they’ve examined – water from places including coastal Maine, Alaska, Argentina, Thailand and Antarctica.

To collect data worldwide, MERI has partnered with the Bozeman-based nonprofit Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which connects scientists in need of data with adventure enthusiasts able to collect those samples.

Although microplastic particles are so small they’re almost invisible, they attract toxins that adhere to the floating plastics. Ingested by small marine life, they then move up the food chain, where they may bioaccumulate in larger marine animals, birds and humans.

“It becomes more and more concentrated, and more and more toxic [as it moves up] the food chain,” explained Abby Barrows, coastal monitoring and outreach coordinator at MERI, in an instructional video for citizen data collectors.

Microplastics can enter the water cycle via degradation of larger plastic debris, fishing gear and shopping bags; by way of particles laundered from clothing; and also from some cosmetics and toothpastes, among other sources.

Supported by a Patagonia Environmental Grant, the collaboration with ASC allows MERI to greatly expand its research efforts. But Barrows still needs more samples, and another partnership – one, between ASC and the Great Pacific Race, will help, according to ASC program director Mike Quist Kautz.

A high profile race new in 2014, the GPR launches June 7 from Monterey, Calif., its participants rowing the 2,100-plus nautical miles solo and in teams to Honolulu, Hawaii. In addition to breaking world records for that stretch of ocean, some of the athletes will collect samples for MERI. As they gather data from remote areas of the Pacific, they will also draw attention to the microplastics issue, Kautz said.

“This is a really pernicious form of pollution that isn’t widely known by the public,” Kautz said. “It poses a huge threat to the entire marine ecosystem.” While this study focuses on oceans, microplastics are likely found in freshwater rivers and lakes, as well, Kautz said.

The main focus of the MERI study to date has been in Penobscot Bay, Maine near the lab in Blue Hill, where samples analyzed have had an average of 28 pieces of microplastic per liter.

ASC’s goal this year is to work with upwards of 500 volunteers, Kautz said. The project is open to various ocean enthusiasts, including sailors, surfers, divers, sea kayakers and beach walkers.

“The samples we’ve received from ASC volunteers internationally [have] helped us gain a better perspective on the microplastics issue,” Barrows said. “This is an issue not only of local coastal water concern. It’ s a global issue.”

For both MERI and ASC, the ultimate objective is to use this evidence to work with federal lawmakers to reduce the use of plastics and by doing so, promote a healthier environment.

Find more information and learn how to get involved, at

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