A shark carcass on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, where plastic particles outnumber sand grains until you dig down about a foot. Photo: ALGALITA MARINE RESEARCH FOUNDATION


TACOMA, Wash. -- Motoring along the Thea Foss Waterway one morning, researcher Julie Masura dropped a fine-mesh net into the water and skimmed the surface for plastic debris.

Candy wrappers, a plastic cup, a grocery bag floated by, but the University of Washington researcher was in search of smaller items: tiny plastic particles no larger than a ladybug.

While scientists have documented the effects of large plastic flotsam in the oceans for decades - turtles trapped in fishing nets, albatrosses swallowing plastic cigarette lighters - very little research has focused on what happens when those bigger pieces break down into tiny specks, called microplastics.

"There is a surprisingly large amount of microplastics in the environment," said Joel Baker, the Port of Tacoma Chair in Environmental Science at the University of Washington Tacoma.

Baker said microscopic fragments are floating in the ocean and washing up on shores, but the exact consequences for marine organisms are still unknown.

His project is developing methods to measure how much microplastics are in seawater and sediments, as a first step to answering those questions. They're sampling the waters of Puget Sound and using citizen scientists to help collect plastics that wash up on beaches.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program is funding the project as part of a national effort to examine the potential harmful effects of microplastics on marine ecosystems.

"Not much is truly known about microplastics, so we are starting at the beginning: how do we measure the amount in the environment?" said Megan Forbes, a NOAA spokeswoman.

Forbes said Baker's project will help develop a standardized way of collecting, isolating and quantifying microplastic particles to be used across the U.S.

"What's the impact? Frankly, we have no idea," said Baker, science director of the new Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma. "The one thing we know for sure is that it doesn't break down." …

Emerging ocean concern: tiny plastic particles

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