The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Chris Jordan
The majority of the plastic pollution in the ocean, by volume, comes in the form of tiny confetti-sized particles, which, as anyone who’s ever kept a pet fish can attest, resemble fish food.
And fish are fooled as well.
More than 40 species of fish, globally, are known to consume plastic.
“It’s available for almost any marine animal of any size to eat, making this material available to go up the food chain,” said Chelea Rochman, the lead author of a new paper from the journal Nature, Scientific Reports. Rochman is a post doctoral researcher at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
There is no doubt among scientists that animals are eating marine plastic, but much less is known about what happens to animals when the plastic gets into their bodies.
To get some answers Rochman compared three groups of Japanese medaka (a “lab rat” species of fish).
- Group one was fed a diet of 90 percent regular fish food, 10 percent dirty polypropylene plastic that had been floating in San Diego Bay for three months.
- Group two was fed 90 percent regular fish food, 10 percent clean polypropylene.
- Group three was fed 100 percent regular fish food.
Credit: Chelsea Rochman
Rochman analyzed the fish after two months to test their levels of persistent organic pollutants like PCBs, flame retardants and polyaromatic hydrocarbons.
“We did find that the chemicals do transfer from the plastic to the fish,” Rochman says, “and we saw a greater concentration in the fish that ate the plastic that had been in the ocean than the fish that had eaten the controlled diet or the clean plastic diet.”
As plastic floats around in the ocean, or polluted waterways, it acts like a sponge for heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. That, Rochman says, could explain why the fish fed the San Diego Bay plastic showed higher levels of those chemicals in their bodies.
Credit: Chelsea Rochman
The chemicals didn’t kill the fish, Rochman said, but some funky things happened to their livers.
“We did see an increase in glycogen depletion in our fish fed both the virgin plastic and our fish fed the plastic that had been in the ocean for 3 months,” Rochman said.
Our bodies store glycogen in our livers as a reserve energy source if we’re under stress.
In Rochman’s experiment, fish that ate plastic had less glycogen. They also had excess fat cells in their livers, or lipidosis, an indication of the beginnings of fatty liver degeneration. The fish fed virgin polystyrene showed elevated levels of lipidosis when compared to the control group, but the fish fed dirty plastic had significantly higher levels than the other two groups of fish.
And finally, the fish fed both the virgin and the dirty plastic both showed signs of tumor development. The fish fed virgin plastic exhibited cellular alteration and the fish fed the dirty plastic exhibited cell death. When the scientists chopped one fish open, after feeding it the diet infused with dirty plastic, they found that 25% of its liver was a full blown tumor. That, Rochman says, is incredibly rare in the lab environment.
“We look at seabirds and marine mammals and they’re very charismatic and we really care about them but I think that to get to the bottom of this issue we need to know how does it affect our own resources,” Rochman said. “If things at the bottom of the marine food chain are ingesting this material either the material itself or the chemicals could be magnifying up the food chain and then ending up on our own dinner plate.”