Citizen science and consumer power take to the coast

‘Microbead’ tracking and rocky shore mapping the focus of new marine initiatives

Synthetic clothing, skin exfoliants and toothpaste may not sound too toxic, but to a lugworm or filter-feeding mussel they are lethal poison.

Tiny plastic particles, known as microbeads, used in their manufacture are causing havoc in the marine environment and the associated food chain.

"Why do we want to be scrubbing ourselves with small pieces of plastic anyway?" Prof Richard Thompson of the British University of Plymouth asked a gathering in Dublin this week, as he handed around a sample extracted from a 500ml cosmetic tub. The particles accumulate large quantities of pollutants, many of them banned.

As he pointed out, the loyal recyclers of plastic drinking water bottles and other household waste have little or no idea of wider complicity in the global microplastic industry. International research in which Thompson collaborated found that each time a polyester garment is washed, it emits over 1,900 fibres down the drain.

Hard to stomach
Unwitting "eco-engineers", such as shoreline worms, can be the first victims of the microplastics in these fibres, as ingested particles can clog up their digestive systems. Sewage treatment plants can capture up to 50 per cent of particles found in cosmetic products, Prof Thompson said, but the other 50 per cent finds its way into rivers and oceans, and, very possibly, back into our food chain.

What’s worse, Thompson noted, about 8 per cent of world oil production is used to make these and other plastic products. Plastic, in turn, comprises about 80 per cent of all marine litter, which poses a serious risk to some 600 species.

Yet the situation is complex, as plastic does prolong the shelf life of food, and some forms of it are better than others, he told fellow participants at Marlisco, the first in a series of EU-wide seminars on marine litter hosted in Dublin by University College Cork's (UCC) Coastal and Marine Research Centre.

Facilitated by Newstalk radio presenter Seán Moncrieff, Marlisco involved representatives from State agencies, private companies and NGOs, with 15 satellite groups – from Kerry to Sligo to Portmarnock north Dublin – participating on a live stream link.

A short animation made by Jane Lee with Dr Tom Doyle of UCC was a particularly effective scene setter, as a sea turtle mistook a child's balloon for jellyfish, gulls and chicks were poisoned and gannets were throttled by detritus and ropes.

A photograph of a dead albatross from Midway island in the north Pacific showed how its stomach was replete with junk.

Thompson – acknowledged world expert on marine litter – with Jim Armstrong of Plastic Recyclers Europe, An Taisce's coastal programmes manager Annabel FitzGerald and Environmental Protection Agency inspector Patrick Chan – steered a lively discussion on practical actions, and heard of Repak's success rate in recapturing and recycling. Transition year students from Coláiste Dún Iascaigh in Cahir, Co Tipperary, screened their documentary, Fish for Thought .

A “plastic levy”, a plastic bottle deposit refund scheme, positive “pester power” by the young, clearer product specification, fishing for litter and a ban on plastic microbeads were voted as the most popular proposals. They will be forwarded to Europe.

Doyle, who co-ordinated the conference, is a firm believer in the value of “citizen science”, noting that companies do respond to consumer power. “Body Shop has undertaken to phase out use of microbeads in its cosmetic products,” he says.

"Citizen science" is also the theme of a separate initiative spearheaded by British and Irish zoologists to monitor the impact of climate change. Students and scientists took to Spiddal shoreline at low tide earlier this week with Fiona Crouch of the British Marine Biological Association to record species along the shore.


ies in mines
Rocky shore animals are like

canaries in mines when it comes to rising sea and air temperatures. The beauty of Shore Thing is that it involved the wider community, Crouch explained last weekend at the first Irish meeting of the Porcupine Marine Natural History Society at NUI Galway (NUIG).

The project, developed as a pilot in 2006, has refined survey techniques of 22 easily recognisable shoreline species. A transit survey is followed up by a 20-minute “species search”, and the information tends to be “very robust”.

Charles Darwin was one of the first "citizen scientists", Crouch said. Communities could build up a valuable picture of changes, and there were now over 300 regular surveys along the British and Northern Irish coasts.

The information is fed into a national database run by the British National Biodiversity Network. It is used by scientists and decision-makers to monitor changes in distribution. Irish data will be fed into the National Biodiversity Data Centre.

The Irish Research Council has recently approved funding for the Irish version, ShorTIE, led by Dr Louise Firth of NUI Galway's Ryan Institute and colleagues. The first ShorTIE surveys will be held in collaboration with the National Biodiversity Data Centre's annual "Bioblitz", at Derrynane, Co Kerry, Dr Firth says.

Cleaner Coasts week in May will provide a further opportunity, and there will be training in “charismatic” coastal areas such as the islands of Inishbofin and Inis Oírr over the summer, she says.

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Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times