Microplastics: No Small Problem for Filter- Feeding Megafauna

We have done our homework and it looks like most filter feeding megafauna around the world are susceptible to ingesting microplastics and to all the risks that go along with that. However, our work is just starting as only a handful of studies have been completed to date in just a few of the key regions of concern. We urgently need more information if we are going to keep these iconic species from sliding closer towards extinction, and we may even help ourselves tackle this mammoth issue that is plastic pollution along the way. For more:

Read the paper here

We are really excited to see this topic get some wider attention:


The Guardian


Fins crossed the message makes it to policy makers in the regions that really count: Gulf of Mexico, Mediterranean Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Coral Triangle (Indonesia, Philippines,  Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, China et al.).

Psssst! Can’t sign in to read the paper? Have a look hereManta Plastic 1 WM.jpg

Rivers, Microplastics & Megafauna: 2017 in a Nutshell

Well, well well… I seem to be able to do one thing consistently….write a blog once a year (apparently on January 4th) that sums up the entire year. In this case I am summing up 2017 in relation to microplastics. Hey sorry guys, #PhDLife has it’s pros and cons…and not enough blogging time is one of them…

It’s been a plastic-not-so-fantastic year for pushing the frontiers of what we know about plastic in the marine environment and recognising the dangers of the smallest of plastics – Microplastics. This review sums up the state of the union pretty well and the following quote helps us along with our New Year’s resolutions (no straws – right?!?).

“The engagement of citizens has a high priority in this regard; after all, we all collectively cause the marine litter problem through our consumptive habits”

– Worm et al, (2017)

What else?…Oh! We now know (I think we kinda always knew) rivers are a major source of pollution (Source 1, Source 2..sorry pay wall) that needs to be prioritised so we can turn the taps off and minimise further pollution. Leading in mismanaged plastic waste, countries like China,  Indonesia and neighbours are highlighted as the biggest culprits.


The map shows areas of the world which contribute to the most plastic waste through rivers (the darker the colour the more waste produced and the bigger the circle the more waste is inputted via the corresponding river). Source: Lebreton et al. (2017)

In terms of megafauna, we now have evidence that whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea and filter feeders, are exposed to toxins associated with plastic (sorry…pay wall) and might be gulping in excess of 170 pieces of plastic per day.

WS from top.jpg

The silver lining is that world now seems to have pricked up its ears to microplastic pollution and plastic marine debris in general. This year we saw two major world ocean meetings (World Ocean Summit, February 2017, Bali, Indonesia and The Ocean Conference, June 2017, New York, USA ) focus on plastic marine debris. Encouragingly, Indonesia pledged to reduce the plastic waste it contributes to our oceans (currently number 2 spot on the naughty list) by 70% by 2025.

I for one have a lot of hope for 2018 being another year for shining an even brighter light on marine plastic issues, but more importantly devising strategies and implementing solutions to turn the plastic tide.

My “other” blogs and features:

Whale Shark Woes

Underwater 360: Plastic: A Growing Problem Harming Marine Life

Ocean Conservancy: Why Plastics are Bad News for Filter Feeders 

Al Jazeera: Plastic waste harming marine life

If you would like to see more “real-time” updates please follow my more social (and more loved accounts):

Facebook: Microplastics & Megafauna

Instagram: Microplastics & Megafauna

Best Fishes


A New Year for Science

Happy New Year!

Wow! I can’t believe a whole year has flown by! I am so thrilled with the project progress this past year and the awareness gained through many different mediums! Also, I am very ashamed of how neglected this blog has become.

In my defence, I have written a few blogs this year but they have been published elsewhere.

Without reinventing the wheel I though I would provide the links to these already published blogs. Hopefully if I sprinkle a few photos in you will forgive me and keep following along.

Surya samples the water near feeding manta rays
The Microplastics & Megafauna Team

And a few blogs written by others about the project:

Lastly a radio interview with the me 🙂

Ocean Optimism at the 2016 International Marine Conservation Congress


Spoiler alert:

Here are the major findings so far:

  •  Manta rays were feeding on patches of plankton with plastics.
  • Plastic pieces averaged 0.48 (±0.17) and 1.11 (±0.51) m-3 in Nusa Penida (N=12) and Komodo National Park (N=6), respectively.
  • Manta rays potentially ingest an estimated 40 – 90 pieces per hour.
  • The most common types of plastics were films and fragments, while plastics (<5mm) were the most abundant size class of plastic debris.
  • Visually counted anthropogenic debris averaged 9,215 (±3,367) pieces km-2 in Nusa Penida and 2,894 (±1,207) pieces km-2 in Komodo, with plastic films observed most commonly in both study locations.
    The types of anthropogenic debris encountered on surveys

    Stay tuned for an exciting 2017 and as always best fishes to all!


Jane of All Trades

On a recent family visit to the Black Sea, the place where I first made a connection to the marine environment, I had the chance to reflect on my past few months of PhD life; the wide variety of activities that have kept me busy in Perth as I prepare for the upcoming field season. In sum it has been an exciting and challenging time. I am quickly learning that being a conservation scientist is a little bit like being a Jane of all Trades. Everyday I am faced with a new skill to learn and master. These skills have included, but are not limited to: improving my critical thinking ability through scientific literature review; being capable of synthesizing intellectual contributions through scientific literature writing; learning new laboratory, field, and data analysis skills; dusting off the mental cobwebs in statistics and Indonesian classes; developing good budgeting skills; writing thorough applications for grants and permit boards; being media savvy and able to engage the public with my science. Phew! It is a good thing I have had help along the way from my fellow colleagues at MMF and Murdoch University.

The past few months have been a lot more reading and writing about the ocean and its majestic filter feeders, the manta rays and whale sharks, than actually observing them in the wild. However, being close Murdoch University has allowed me access to advice from laboratory experts for developing methodology, as well as new networking, collaboration and public awareness opportunities. Below are a few of my recent experiences and challenges.

Getting well acquainted with my inner writer…and my office chair

As I discussed previously, plastics are known to concentrate toxins and through ingestion, large filter feeders may become contaminated. Mass spectrometry is an advanced laboratory science that is able to measure small quantities of chemicals in the tissues of living things. Although mass spectrometry methodology is well developed and previously tried with success to measure persistent organic pollutants (such as DDTs, PCBs and plastic associated toxins like phthalates) in the tissues of elasmobranch (sharks and rays) species, this methodology has generally only been achieved on frozen samples and relies on the availability of refrigerated sample storage facilities and quick transport to the laboratory. The availability of these things becomes harder or nearly impossible in the remote places of developing countries where manta rays and whale sharks aggregate. For example, while a freezer is technically easily purchased, reliable power is hard to find, thus a back up generator must also be added to the lab equipment wish list. Although, both Indonesia and the Philippines have many airports spread around their archipelagoes that would help me quickly transport samples; finding dry ice or other long term cool storage solutions, to allow the material to stay frozen during international transport from beach to lab is much more difficult. Thus, it would be beneficial to this study and others that a new method for effective sample preservation without the need for refrigeration during storage and shipment, be developed and tested. Researchers at the Murdoch Metabolomics and Separation Science Facility at Murdoch University are helping me do just that.

Ellie Lab
From seaside to bench side.

Marine debris is a complex problem requiring a multi-facetted approach, which is something we at MMF aim for in all of our projects.  Public outreach and local stakeholder engagement and inclusion is very much part of my project. While developing this social aspect of my project I had the good fortune to meet a fellow marine biologist, Christine Parfitt, whose interests also lie in reducing plastic marine pollution. Her initial interest in sea turtles led her to develop elementary school curriculum, Bottle for Botol, with the aim to educate the next generation of Indonesians about the hazards of plastic waste mismanagement and in particular, reducing single use plastic. Working alongside Christine, and with the help of her social science and education theory expertise, I hope to develop better awareness methods to effectively reach stakeholders in the rural regions where my fieldwork takes place.

Bottle for Botol
Christine and her Indonesian students with their “Bottle for Botol”

While in Perth visited the local dive community at Underwater Explorers Club of Western Australia to raise awareness about microplastics. While large solid waste management is handled relatively effectively in developed countries, attention is still needed on reduction. Additionally, many of the talk attendees were surprised to learn about the hidden microplastics in our cosmetic products. It is my continued goal to cast a wide audience net and raise awareness about the hazards of plastic debris, especially micro sized plastic, to our marine environment by drawing focus to our charismatic focal species, the manta rays and the whale sharks.

Talk UWEC 1
“Trash Talking” to the Under Water Explorer’s Club of Western Australia

To engage a wide audience at MMF, we often integrate interested general public into our field research as “citizen scientists”.  Lucky for us, our focal species are often found in some of the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, and thus our citizen scientists, and us, get treated to some amazing encounters and experiences. If you too are a diver and excited about marine conservation, you are invited to dive in and join us in these spectacular locations in the field. I for one cannot wait to get wet!

One of our Citizen Scientists gets acquainted with a manta ray


From Manta Rays to Mass Spectrometry

July has found me embracing many beginnings and challenges. The least of which was keeping up with my Plastic Free July pledge.

As I am in the beginning stages of my PhD project on the implications of microplastics on megafauna I thought the timing to be perfect to practice what I preach. The Plastic Free July pledge basically means you avoid single-use-plastic for month. It should be easy for me to be able to avoid single-use-plastic for a whole month as the incentive and awareness is definitely there for me…or so I thought.

Plastic soup
While spending the last six years on and under the waters of SE Asia I have witnessed first-hand what plastic pollution can do to the underwater environment.

How hard could it be?

I thought that I already had good waste reduction habits: I bring my own bag when shopping; I always say no to plastic straws at restaurants; I do not buy take-away drinks or food without providing my own container; I pack my lunch in re-useable containers or eat in; when at the grocery store I think twice about buying plastic container over the glass or can one, I read product labels to avoid microbeads in personal care products, and I recycle. However, the myth that avoiding single-use-plastic is easy was quickly busted.

The second myth that I quickly disbanded is it is easier to avoid plastic in the developed world as compared to the developing. I thought people have more awareness about the threats of plastic in developed countries, I mean are we not always taught the 3 Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in school. Don’t all public trash bins come in recycle, compost, and throw away these days? It is true that it looks cleaner in the developing world. When walk down the road we do not see the tell-tale traces of our plastic consumption like we could in rural Indonesia. But that does not mean we are doing well, it just means we are hiding it better. Managing plastic disposal is just one side of the coin. And this past month has been about the other. Avoiding plastic. And when you visit a grocery store chain the truth sinks in. Even produce such as cucumbers are shrink wrapped, apples and oranges are put into plastic bags, and bananas are shrink wrapped on a bed of polystyrene to avoid bruising. Granola bars are individually packaged and juice boxes come with disposable straws. Cereal, oatmeal, and even flour come in plastic packaging. It is harder and harder to find paper, glass or aluminum package alternatives in these sophisticated grocery complexes. So every little purchase becomes a dilemma.

A few of the times I failed to avoid single-use-plastic
A few of the times I failed to avoid single-use-plastic

I will not pretend that I even came to close to having a “Plastic Free” July. I failed miserably. The one or two days I managed to not create any new plastic waste it was because I stayed home and did not leave the house. So I took a new mission, to try to document how I was failing to help me understand the gross complexity of this issue, and how it is not one that we can just tackle alone. I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that our addiction to plastic will require and intervention and help in the form of government legislation.

Inspiring others to reduce their single-use-plastic consumption. Holly now proudly totes a re-useable grocery bag.
Inspiring others to reduce their single-use-plastic consumption. Holly now proudly totes a re-useable grocery bag.

Challenges to Pledge

            Recently, I have had to good fortune to travel to conferences and meeting around the globe. This travel helped to widen my perspective on many issues facing our marine environment. However, besides for growing my carbon footprint I realized that travel is also growing my plastic footprint. More and more these days airline food comes in shrink wrapped and single-use-plastic containers, accompanied by plastic drinking glasses and plastic cutlery. When I asked several airline hostesses who were throwing all trash into large plastic bags if the airline recycles, on all occasions the answer was “No”. Clearly there are no official rules and regulations put in place to govern plastic waste in the airline industry. Perhaps it is time for us to put pressure on our favorite carries.

Single-use-plastic on flights including small single use plastic water cups with straws.
Single-use-plastic on flights including small single use plastic water cups with straws.

Upon getting to Africa, the first thing that immediately struck me when visiting the beaches (South Eastern Coast of South Africa and Mozambique) was the lack of large pieces of marine debris such as plastic water bottles that are so ubiquitous on the beaches of South East Asia. Why this difference? Most obviously to me, the difference is because of the availability of drinking water from the tap in these parts of Africa. People here were not required to purchase their drinking water and could source it from home or work. In stark contrast, in Indonesia tap water is not safe to drink. As a tourist there you will easily be contributing to the creation of at least one plastic water bottle of waste per day. Worse still, as I recently found out when visiting a local school in rural Flores, is that no water is provided for the children at these schools. On a small allowance the children are able to buy small disposable cups of water to get them through the hot day. These drinking cups can be found discarded on the roads, on the river beds, and of course on the beaches. The upside is that this is problem with a fairly easy solution and that would be to make drinking water available and dispensed from re-useable containers at schools. The added bonus, I am willing to bet, is students who are more likely to want to come and stay at school.

I have barely touched upon all of the ways plastic is intertwines into our daily lives and this blog post is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but just a log of my challenges over the last month. The point I am trying to make is that every problem has a solution if we are able to look at it from all angles and prioritize it. This is my hope for my PhD work over the next 3-4 years. For me it makes sense to zero in on the area I know best, SE Asia and in particular Indonesia. Not only is this area at the heart of marine biodiversity but coincidently all arrows point to this part of the world being prioritized for waste management. A recent study by Jambeck et al. (2015) has quantified the amounts of mismanaged plastic waste coming out of Indonesia to be in the ballpark of 3.22 million metric tons, of which an estimated up to 40% enters the marine environment. According to this study, Indonesia ranks 2nd in the amount of plastic waste produced, sandwiched by neighboring China (1st) and the Philippines (3rd) and closely followed by other SE Asian countries.

The countries making the biggest contribution to the plastic marine debris that enters our oceans annually.
The countries making the biggest contribution to the plastic marine debris that enters our oceans annually.

What I would like to bring to light is if the plastic marine pollution has any implications on MMFs flagship species, the filter-feeding manta rays and whale sharks. With that amount of plastic floating around our seas – not only in visible pieces but also in microscopic pieces, termed microplastics – the likelihood of plastic ingestion by our focal species is high. To answer these questions I will be working with some cutting edge technology, mass spectrometry. This technology will allow me to determine if compounds associated with plastics are found in the bodies of manta rays and whale sharks. Collaborating with the experts from the Murdoch Metabolomics and Separation Science facility at Murdoch University and supported by grants from the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, PADI Foundation and Idea Wild will help me to tackle this issue from a new angle. An angle that I hope will serve to better protect our beloved manta rays and whale sharks, but also their precious habitats that also support a cornucopia of other marine treasures for our future.

A state of the art mass spectrometer at Murdoch Metabolomics and Separation Science facility.


PADI Foundation


Banning Microplastic: Showing LOVE for the environment

The word “microplastic” is becoming more and more commonly used in the media these days, particularly to those in tune with the environmental radar. The new “climate change” if you have it.

The word “micro” as defined by Dictionary.com means:

1. extremely small

2. minute in scope or capability

So how small is extremely small? Scientific nomenclature on microplastic is still currently being defined, but the consensus to date is any piece of plastic smaller than 5mm is classified as microplastic.

Microplastic scale_5Gyres

(5 Gyres Position Paper 2013)

In the case of the second definition; however, nothing can be further from the truth. In fact scientists are astounded at the current amount of microplastic found within our oceans. A recent report (Eriksen et al. 2014) estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles, weighing about 269,000 tons, are in the world’s oceans . Where has all of this microplastic come from?

If you have ever traveled to SE Asia or other parts of the developing world where waste management is a low priority than you undoubtedly have witnessed the large quantities of plastic debris floating in the sea. Most of this plastic comes from improper dumping of household waste. This larger debris will over time break up into smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastic.


But there’s more. Many beauty products sold on the market these days, especially those claiming to be exfoliating, purposely contain microplastic. A report by the 5 Gyres institute found that approximately 1-4% of the weight of the beauty products they tested was accounted for my micro sized plastic beads. Other similar studies place that number as high as 10%.


So what you may be asking? Well microplastics are being ingested by marine life (Cole et al, 2013, Boerger et al, 2010) maybe even by my favorite fish, the manta ray. The chemicals that plastics contain and absorb are known to adversely affect organisms. Not failing to mention the other poisons plastics absorb while they are floating around the oceans such as DDT and PCBs. These toxins are now entering our food webs (Wright et al. 2013). Seafood is sounding less and less palatable I bet.

Wright et al. 2013

(Wright et al. 2013)

The good news is that as knowledge increases, people become aware of these problems, and pressure begins to mount on governing bodies to take charge. Take for example the very recent legislature in Europe and in the state of Indiana in the USA that are now banning microplastics from consumer products. Major cosmetic companies are also beginning to respond by offering products with natural alternatives for exfoliation like walnut shells our oatmeal.

St.Ives NeutrogenaAlternative

My point here is not to promote one product over another, but to show you that you have choices in this life. If you take the time to choose carefully then you not only limit your impact on our environment, but you send a clear message to companies that you care about our future. Big companies spend millions of dollars or more each year on consumer market analysis listening to the choices we make with our wallets. We are a smart species, as far as we believe the smartest, thus we owe it to ourselves to take better care of our home, planet Earth. Informing ourselves about the issues is a good start. Making the change in our habits should naturally follow.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. Popular culture has us believe that this day, meant to celebrate love, means for us to shower our loved ones with gifts. But before you rush out on a last minute dash to buy a stuffed teddy bear, a box of frilly packaged chocolates, something (anything!) for your sweetheart, how about instead this year you show your love for the environment by limiting the waste you produce.

Alternative gift ideas can be found at:



Ellie Talkin’ Trash

Welcome everyone! I am very excited to introduce you to my new research project that I will undertake as a PhD study supported by Murdoch University, Western Australia in conjunction with the Marine Megafauna Foundation, starting in June 2015.

Please follow my project updates or plastic-related “Trash Talking”on this site or through the Marine Megafauna Foundation Blog page.

Follow this link for my very first video blog: Project Introduction: Ellie Talking Trash!