B.C. waters threatened by microplastic pollution

New research shows tiny pieces of plastic could pose a major threat to the waters off the B.C. coast.

New research shows plankton, a vital aquatic food source, are eating tiny plastics and dying

In this unrelated photo, a blue rectangular piece of microplastic is visible on a woman's finger. These tiny particles are polluting B.C. waters and are impacting aquatic life. (TEd S. Warren/The Associated Press)

New research shows tiny pieces of plastic could pose a major threat to the waters off the B.C. coast.

In the summer of 2012, scientists from the Vancouver Aquarium and University of Victoria undertook the first survey of microplastic contamination off the B.C. coast. Their research, which was published last week in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, shows tiny particles of plastic averaging about a half-millimetre in size are polluting local waters. 

"[We've] seen these impact with photos of animals with their stomachs filled with plastics that are visible to the human eye. What we have not seen are pictures of the microscopic creatures at the bottom of the food chain and what plastics might be found in their bellies," said Peter Ross, a co-author of the survey and the director of Vancouver Aquarium's new ocean pollution research program.

Ross says the microplastics are being ingested by a crucial aquatic food source — plankton — and killing them. 

"It fills up the stomach and they feel like they've got a belly full of food, but they have no nutrition associated with that. It's simply a bit of plastic," said Ross.

The highest concentrations of microplastics were found in Queen Charlotte Sound and the Southern Strait of Georgia. The scientists say the likely source of the tiny pollutants is waste water, particularly from the acrylic fibres of laundry machines. 

Now the question now is what impact microplastics will have on salmon and other fish that survive on plankton, and how drifting debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan could add to the problem.

With files from CBC's Keith Vass

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