A Beacon of Hope in a Sea of Waste?
Charlotte Young is the Principal Scientist for the Micro Plastic Survey on the Elysium Heart of Coral Triangle Expedition 2018. Her mission was to assess how Raja Ampat, the marine biodiversity hotspot of the world, is affected by plastic pollution.
Before we set off, given the understanding that Indonesia is the second largest contributor to marine plastic after China, I expected that no matter how remote, we would see and find plastic. We began our journey on MV Gaia Love in Ambon, the most populous city of the Indonesian province of Maluku. Here the problem and extent of poor waste management was visible to all. Beaches choked with plastic, waste bobbing on the surface like drifting birds. As a starting point to our journey, this painted a bleak picture of what was to come.
We conducted our first trawl at this location and in just 15 minutes we captured 28 pieces of large plastic (wrappers, packets, bottles etc.) and 74 microplastic pieces made up of a variety of plastic types – fragments, fibres and foams. This was only a fraction of the visible plastic pollution affecting this area and of which was caught in our trawl.
Photo: Elysium Epic
The next day we left Ambon behind, and with it, civilisation. As each new day came, we conducted another trawl and it wasn’t long before our findings painted a slightly brighter picture. The further from civilisation we travelled, the less visible plastic we saw and overall, the less we seemed to capture in our trawls. Yet despite this, we were still finding micro-plastic and often at sites with high species densities. On more than one occasion we captured small larval fish and plankton in our nets along with any plastic present at the surface. This was a stark reminder that species, at all life stages, have the potential to come in to contact with plastic and that plastic pollution is abundant in areas of importance to biodiversity.
It wasn’t just during trawls that we saw plastic. Whilst diving we also found plastic buried amongst the reef, caught on corals, smothering individuals from the light. In each case we did our best to collect all we could and take it back to the boat for disposal, but sometimes individuals were too tangled to rid them of it all.
At the end of the expedition our findings painted an interesting picture. Plastic pollution does affect Raja Ampat and this is a reason for grave concern. In total we found a vast 583 pieces of plastic from just 16 fifteen-minute trawls. The majority of this plastic was in the form of micro debris and only micrometres in size. The most abundant form of plastic we collected were filaments – fibres derived from clothing and fishing nets. This finding supports other research, which now considers fibres to be the most abundant form of plastic pollution in the ocean.
However, interestingly, one of the 16 trawls we conducted contained no plastic at all. This finding gives us hope that areas of Raja Ampat may still be buffered from the plague of plastic pollution sweeping through our oceans. A beacon of hope in a sea of waste?
Photo: Elysium Epic
Fourth Element is primary sponsor for the plastic research, which will provide high impact data on the extent of microplastic pollution in the Coral Triangle and establish a baseline for further research. The impact of this research could be ground-breaking and with the Coral Triangle being the biodiversity hotspot of the world, data collected in this region is invaluable. This project is just part of the ongoing research to monitor the effects of human activity in this region.