This can’t be good. Marine biologists studying the diets of larval perch found that hatchlings exposed to microplastic particles during their development prefer eating them instead of zooplankton, to the detriment of their growth and health.
This is the first time an animal has been found to preferentially feed on plastic particles and is cause for concern.
Professor Peter Eklöv, an ecologist from Sweden’s Uppsala University, lead the study and co-authored the report in Science. The research is the result of worldwide concern over harm to the ecosystem caused by microplastic particles (plastic particles
Larvae exposed to microplastic particles during development also displayed changed behaviors and were much less active than fish that had been reared in water that contained no microplastic particles. Furthermore, fish exposed to microplastic particles ignored the smell of predators which usually evoke innate antipredator behaviors in naïve fish.
Study author Oona Lönnstedt goes beyond the obvious concern – that eating plastic instead of plankton stunts fish growth – to the discovery that it also changes innate fish behavior like predator avoidance. The researchers placed plastic-fed perch with pike, a natural enemy, and the perch were all eaten within 48 hours.
It’s not far-fetched to assume that the plastic-over-plankton feeding is occurring in other species. It could be because of the overabundance of microplastic particles – a situation that is only getting worse. The Great Garbage Patch in the Pacific keeps getting bigger and a new report by the United Nations found that the actual degradation rates of so-called biodegradable plastics have been grossly over-exaggerated. Most can only break down in high temperatures (higher than ocean waters) and sink rapidly – taking them away from the UV rays that also aid in breakdown.
What’s the solution? Better biodegradable plastics is a start. A switch from plastic containers to reusables is another. Improvements in waste management would help too. All of these require investments and a change in human behavior.
What’s the alternative? No more fish … no more fish-eating animals … no more humans.