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Scripps Study: Microplastics Found In Deep Ocean, Affecting Food Chain

Jenni Brandon, a researcher at Birch Aquarium, showcases some of the micropla...

Photo by Shalina Chatlani

Above: Jenni Brandon, a researcher at Birch Aquarium, showcases some of the microplastics she's collected, June 4, 2019.

By Reporter Shalina Chatlani

A new study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows that microplastics are at highest concentrations hundreds of meters below the ocean surface.

Minuscule pieces of plastic are pervasive not just on the ocean surface, but well into the deep sea. That's according to new research published Thursday from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which says deep-sea animals could be at risk of exposure to these plastics' toxic materials.

Researcher Anela Choy has spent more than two years studying microplastics by navigating a deep-diving robot and using it to scoop out water from Monterey Bay.

"We wanted to look at the vertical extent of microplastic pollution," Choy said. "That pollution might be getting to different species of animals that encompass the marine food web at these different depths."

Microplastics are small. They're less than 5 millimeters in length and include things like the beads in face wash or fibers that have broken off a fishing net.

And, when Choy looked deep below the ocean surface, she found lots of this material.

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"We found microplastic everywhere we looked. From shallow depths in the water column down to the deepest depths and we also found them in the bodies and guts of every animal specimen we looked at," Choy said.

Choy said her study is one of the first to systemically look at about how much plastic is concentrated at different levels into the deep sea.

These microplastics could be impacting deep sea life, said Jenni Brandon, a researcher at Birch Aquarium.

"So, when I find plastic that’s this size, it’s actually going to be capable of entering any level of the food chain," she said. "Something really small could eat it, but something at the other end of the food chain could eat thousands of fish that already ate it."

She said some animals fill up on it and die of starvation because it’s not real food. And, plastic also has chemicals that are toxic, not just to sea animals, but to others up the food chain.

"It can affect human health because we eat seafood, and the vast majority of the world gets their protein from seafood," Brandon said. "So the more fish that are eating plastics, the more humans are eating plastic."

Right now humans are probably not feeling the impacts, because they're so much bigger than fish, she said. But, as concentrations rise, she said that the situation might change.

"But it can certainly get to a level that it does start to affect us," she said.

One of the animals that's known to be impacted by microplastics is the Laysan Albatross, she said.

But, like Choy, Brandon thinks there need to be more studies on the effects these plastics have on different types of animals.

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Aired: June 6, 2019 | Transcript

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