By Cheyenne Ellis
Plastics first emerged during the early-to-mid-twentieth century as a much-desired alternative to scarcely available natural resources. Since then, these synthetic materials have permeated our environment, including places we never intended such as the waters of the Long Island Sound.
In addition to large floating pieces of plastics, tiny broken-down particles called microplastics have also infiltrated our waterways. In many recent studies, bivalve mollusks (i.e., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops) have been used in attempts to quantify microplastic pollution levels, but some researchers including Evan Ward and Sandra Shumway, marine scientists at the University of Connecticut, have raised concerns about their accuracy. Bivalves are selective particle feeders; in other words, they are picky eaters and may not consume all the microplastics to which they are exposed.
“What this means is they capture a lot of different particles, but don’t ingest them all,” said Ward, Professor and Head of the Marine Science Department at the University of Connecticut in Groton. “If you just take a bivalve out of the environment and look at what’s in there, you’re going to find microplastics, but it’s not going to tell you much about the microplastic levels in the environment.”
In their upcoming study, which has been awarded $301,150 by the Long Island Sound Study with $150,575 matching funds, Ward, Shumway, and their team will evaluate the effectiveness of two new potential bioindicators, Crepidula fornicata (also called slipper snails) and Mogula manhattensis (also called sea squirts or sea grapes), in quantifying microplastic distribution, to determine if they are an improvement over bivalves.
Measuring concentration levels with tunicates and slipper snails
Ward and Shumway have opted to test the suitability of slipper snails and tunicates based on their previous research in 2019 which showed that these species, unlike bivalves, are indiscriminate suspension feeders, meaning they filter in all particles around them and do not have the ability to selectively reject particles.
“The only time you see tunicates reject material back out of their mouth is when the concentration of particles gets really high,” said Ward. It is the same deal with slipper snails—while they can mass-reject particles, they cannot individually sort out specific particles while eating.
The research, which is set to begin in the late summer of 2021, will test the viability of these organisms in both a lab and field setting, where the investigators will be heading into the Sound to find locations where both of the suspension feeders live in the same relative area.
If the research shows that tunicates or slipper snails are good monitors for microplastics, future research and monitoring efforts could focus on them instead of bivalves, hopefully getting more accurate data from their stomach contents.
In the lab, the team will expose the snails and tunicates to microplastics at a level similar to that which they recorded in their previous studies of microplastic distribution in the Long Island Sound. They will measure the feces, pseudofeces (particles that are spit out prior to ingestion), and the tissues which will help them to determine the gut retention time and the proportion of microplastics ingested. Knowing this information will potentially make it possible to measure microplastic pollution.
Are microplastics harmful to shellfish? To us?
Research suggests that microplastics, at the current concentration levels, have no harmful effects on shellfish, or the humans who eat them.
While there are a few studies that do note effects from microplastics, Ward cautions they may not have the most realistic lab conditions. His previous research has found microplastic concentration levels to be around one particle per liter in Long Island Sound, but the literature suggesting that shellfish may be impacted by microplastics often have concentration levels in the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands. “There’s a real disconnect between laboratory studies that are using these really unrealistic concentrations and what the animals are being exposed to currently [in the natural environment],” said Ward.
That is not to say that shellfish are in the clear—they are already facing a multitude of threats, both anthropogenic and natural in origin.
“One major threat to commercially important species of shellfish is disease,” said Shumway, Research Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Connecticut who is also currently an Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Shellfish Research. “Warming seawater will also impact species in different geographic regions, and in some cases may result in the movement of species ranges.”
Without seeing drastic action to reduce plastic usage and an improvement in waste disposal and recycling efforts, National Geographic predicts that plastic concentration levels in the ocean could triple by the year 2040. Could we potentially get to a point where the microplastic concentration is high enough to start seeing effects? Ward believes it is certainly possible and for that reason, focusing on prevention methods now, before we have reached that threshold, is of the utmost importance.
How You Can Help
The creation of plastics has bettered our lives—there is no question about that. Disposable plastics have revolutionized the modern medical industry. Plastic polymers are sturdy, plentiful, and moldable. Without them, many simple objects we take for granted such as chairs, toothbrushes, and even combs, would look very different. Many would not be able to afford those things at all without the cheap price tags that often accompany plastic. So how did something with so many benefits also become something of such concern?
Single-use plastics took off shortly after the introduction of plastic in the early twentieth century, for no reasons other than they were cheap to use and easy to throw out afterwards. Once a disposable object was discarded, it was forgotten. Companies were profiting and their customers were happy. Yet none of those plastics really disappeared—they have continued to sit in our landfills and oceans for decades, breaking into smaller pieces, but never really breaking down. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund estimates that it can take anywhere from 20-500 years for plastic to fully decompose, with most objects trending towards hundreds of years.
Lowering the influx of ocean plastics will not only immediately benefit wildlife, but will also help lower the concentration of microplastic particles in the future. While widespread policy changes such as the Connecticut 2019 plastic bag ban have helped eliminate some pollution, we still have much further to go. Try taking some of these steps to reduce your individual plastic waste:
Ward and Shumway believe developing an awareness about how much plastic we use, and how much plastic is around us, is an important first step. They challenge everyone to start paying attention to the types of plastic they see while driving on the highway.
“If we could at least cut back on those, I think that would do a lot,” Ward said.
With single-use plastics being the largest and most preventable source of plastic pollution, targeting these makes the most sense for reducing marine plastic debris and limiting future microplastic pollution. To emphasize this, the Long Island Sound Study created the #DontTrashLISound campaign on social media in 2017, posting information about alternatives to single-use on their online platforms. Since 2018, the Study has partnered with several other environmental organizations to hold beach clean-ups and distribute thousands of “Protect our Wildlife” stickers which could be displayed on reusable water bottles.
Cheyenne Ellis is a communications intern at NEIWPCC for The Long Island Sound Study (summer 2021). She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College in 2021.