The more we learn about the global ocean plastic problem, the worse and worse it seems. Now, researchers are finding that at least one species of young fish can actually become hooked on eating microplastics in the sea, likening it to unhealthy fast food.
The full study, published in Science Magazine and led by researchers at the University of Uppsala in Sweden, investigates one species, the European Perch, in the Baltic Sea, where there are much higher concentrations of polystyrene microplastics than are found naturally in nature. They wanted to see how this plastic was directly impacting the fish.
What they found was that young fish were actually consuming microplastics directly, mistaking it for something nutritious.
“They are basically fooled into thinking it’s a high-energy resource that they need to eat a lot of,” lead author Dr Oona Lonnstedt, from Uppsala University, told the BBC. “I think of it as unhealthy fast food for teenagers, and they are just stuffing themselves.”
The analogy is apt, because, much like how eating a fast food-heavy diet can have adverse health impacts, the consumption of plastic by young fish has nearly the same effect. The fish in waters with more plastic were "smaller, slower and more stupid" than "those that hatched in clean waters,” Lonnstedt said. And it is not a choice due to scarcity, as these fish will choose to consume microplastics even where healthier, natural options like plankton are readily available.
The study is one of the first to really look at the impacts of microplastics on marine life -- something that, despite growing awareness of the problem, is not really known. Understanding the problem would go a long way in helping develop solutions.
"With such data in hand," said Chelsea M. Rochman, a researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto, in a press release. "Practitioners can shift their energy toward prevention and avoid the need for costly recovery and restoration."
Moreover, this also helps us understand the true cost of the problem. Plastic may be considered a “cheap” product, but when the entire, lifecycle cost is factored in, I bet that's no longer the case. Organic and genuinely biodegradable alternatives, which may be costlier to produce initially, will be, when everything is factored in, the obviously better choice.
Over the past few years, we've seen major progress on the issue of plastic, with the most notable change taking place when the U.S. banned plastic micro-beads last year in a rare, bipartisan move. But many countries around the world still allow their usage. It's time to ban these dangerous materials globally and embark on a massive project to clean up their mess, before its too late.
Image credit: Michaelis Scientists via Wikimedia Commons