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‘Dark side of plastics’

New funding for marine plastics pollution research

Research |

By Jeff Green

Dr. Max Liboiron is continuing her research on the effects of marine plastics pollution in Canada’s North thanks to new funding announced Feb. 17 by the Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response (MEOPAR) network and Irving Shipbuilding Inc. (ISI)

Dr. Liboiron, assistant professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, received a total investment of $137,600, allowing her to complete the first comprehensive study of the effects of marine plastics pollution in the North.

“Without it, we wouldn’t have a functioning laboratory and we wouldn’t be able to support the exceptional students and partners we’re working with.” — Dr. Max Liboiron

The new funding will allow her to develop and evaluate three approaches: biological monitoring, citizen science trawls and shoreline sampling for icy and rocky coasts. These methods will assess marine plastic quantities, types and sources to establish the first comprehensive baseline in Canada’s northern waters.

“This funding is foundational to creating the basis of a monitoring system for marine plastics in Newfoundland and Labrador and the rest of the Canadian North,” said Dr. Liboiron, who is also the Chair in Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Arts.“Without it, we wouldn’t have a functioning laboratory and we wouldn’t be able to support the exceptional students and partners we’re working with.”

Plastics No. 1 concern

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has identified marine plastics pollution as a top environmental concern as it can cause harm to both ecosystem health and human systems.

Dr. Liboiron says the UNEP’s estimate of financial damage from plastics to marine ecosystems is USD$13 billion each year, not including loss of commercial fish stock, damaged ocean infrastructure and rescue costs when plastics entangle vessel engines.

“I applaud MEOPAR and Irving Shipbuilding for their support of Dr. Liboiron,” said Dr. Richard Marceau, vice-president (research). “Memorial is proudly leading vital research focused on the Arctic and northern regions, areas of strategic importance for our university. With the contributions of MEOPAR and Irving Shipbuilding, Dr. Liboiron’s research will lead to a fuller understanding of the implications of marine plastics pollution.”

In harm’s way

Plastics can cause harm physically: animals can become entangled; they can act as a floating vector for hitchhiking invasive species as they float from one country to another; and outside of ecosystems, they can also entangle coastal infrastructure such as vessel propellers and air intake pipes.

Canada lacks a long-term monitoring program for marine plastics even though it has the largest coastline in the world.
Canada lacks long-term monitoring for marine plastics even though it has the largest coastline in the world.
Photo: Submitted

They can also cause harm chemically: plastics absorb oily chemicals and when an animal ingests those plastics, the chemicals can transfer to the animal’s tissue. Over time, these chemicals and accumulate in the animal and eventually show up in food webs. The chemicals can reduce reproductive health, cause stress in cells and interfere with the hormone system.

“Growing evidence indicates that plastics can move toxic chemicals into food webs through animal ingestion, potentially impacting human health,” said Dr. Liboiron.

Despite the warning signs and financial implications, Canada lacks a long-term monitoring program for marine plastics even though it has the largest coastline in the world.

“As the North becomes the next frontier for industrialization and extractive resources, it’s also going to be the next hot spot for contamination and pollution,” she added. “We want to get a baseline done as soon as possible, so we have data to talk about this problem as it develops.

‘Place-based science’

The MEOPAR and ISI investment will allow Dr. Liboiron and her team to establish a methodology for plastics sampling in the North as well as provide monitoring data on the quantities and types of marine plastics currently in the North. This research will allow environmental managers, policy-makers and community groups to develop effective monitoring and response plans for marine plastics pollution in the North. As Dr. Liboiron puts it, the team is conducting “place-based science.” Put simply, they’re monitoring plastics in ways that make sense in the North.

Learn more about Dr. Max Liboiron’s research at the 4:25 mark in the following video.

“We’re using biomonitoring of northern birds and fish to see what their plastic ingestion rates are like as a proxy for the types and locations of plastics in the ocean, as well as what this ingestion means for contamination of food webs,” explained Dr. Liboiron. “We’re designing and testing surface trawls that both citizen scientists, everyday people, and accredited scientists can use; and we’re developing shoreline protocols and technologies that take rocks and ice into account, since all other shoreline studies assume sandy beaches.”

Dr. Liboiron and her team have already collected more than 200 cod fish guts from the recreational food fishery in Petty Harbour and St. Philip’s areas, checking them for plastics. What they found was promising—one of the lowest plastic ingestion rates ever recorded—between 2.2-2.4 per cent.

‘Dark side of plastics’

One of the groups Dr. Liboiron will be collaborating with is Coastal Connections, a marine ecotourism company based in Holyrood whose vessels are utilized in marine research. It will test various designs of trawls for retrieving plastics in the ocean, as well as help implement an interpretative at-sea program for tourists and the public.

“While most people see plastic debris floating on the surface and washed ashore on beaches they aren’t aware of how much more there is that is not readily visible,” said Capt. Jan Negrijn, owner and operator of Coastal Connections. “We have to know about this problem and care enough about it to find ways to make a difference as individuals and communities.

Captain Jan Negrijn of Coastal Connections.
Captain Jan Negrijn of Coastal Connections.
Photo: Submitted

“We are now seeing the dark side of plastics and we have to use the creativity, ingenuity and technical competence that created them in the first place to find ways to solve the problem of their negative effects in our ocean.”

In total, MEOPAR and ISI announced funding of $1.8 million to support nine new ocean research projects. Altogether, the projects will involve 48 partner organizations (27 of whom are also contributing financially to the project) and will create 57 student and recent graduate research positions at 12 universities across Canada. Dr. Liboiron currently has 12 undergraduate and graduate students working on the project. The MEOPAR ISI investment will allow her to hire additional research assistants and one master’s student.

Irving Shipbuilding’s $1-million contribution to the initiative is pursuant to its Value Proposition obligation under the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy, whereby Irving Shipbuilding is committed to spending 0.5 per cent of contract revenues with the aim of creating a sustainable marine industry across Canada.

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