Plastic in the fish we eat

Fish swimming amongst floating plastic

The oceans are now a soup of trillions of barely visible pieces of plastic

From surface waters to the deep seas, tiny plastic particles are everywhere. They typically form when larger plastic objects, such as shopping bags and food containers, break down.

Scientists are concerned because microplastics are so widely distributed and easy for wildlife to consume. New research reveals that, in the last decade, the proportion of fish consuming plastic has doubled across all species.

A cloud of microplastics whirls under the waves
A cloud of microplastics whirls under the waves | Image: Cornish Plastic Pollution Coalition

It appears that fish are consuming more plastic as ocean plastic pollution increases. If this is true, we expect the situation to worsen as multiple studies have found that the amount of plastic being produced will continue to increase over the next several decades.

Not all fish eat particles of plastic but the the microplastics go up the food chain instead. For example, fishes such as sharks, grouper and tuna that hunt other fishes or marine organisms as food were more likely to ingest plastic. Consequently, species higher on the food chain are at greater risk.

Plastic in the ocean
Plastic in the ocean | Image: Bell/Corbis

This is not just a wildlife conservation issue. Researchers don’t know very much about the effects of ingesting plastic on fish or humans. However, there is evidence that that microplastics and even smaller particles called nanoplastics can move from a fish’s stomach to its muscle tissue, which is the part that humans typically eat.

Plastic food chain infographic

At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year, and make up 80% of all marine debris from surface waters to deep-sea sediments. Marine species ingest or are entangled by plastic debris, which causes severe injuries and deaths. What’s now clear is that “out of sight, out of mind” is not an effective response to ocean pollution – especially when it may end up on our plates.

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