British Columbia

'Alarmingly high' amounts of plastic microbeads found in B.C. shellfish farming areas

“We found microbeads in the smallest bits of sediment and in a concentration equal to the amounts of silt and organic matter,” one researcher said.

Researcher says better standards needed for shellfish industry

A sample of microplastics taken from the Strait of Georgia by the Vancouver Aquarium during an unrelated study. Researchers say the amount of plastic microbeads examined from samples taken off Denman Island is "alarmingly high." (Vancouver Aquarium)

Areas off the B.C. coast used for farming shellfish are becoming highly polluted by plastic microbeads, new research has found.

According to a release from Simon Fraser University, researchers analyzed dozens of sediment samples from 16 sites around Lambert Channel and Baynes Sound off Denman Island — where 130 shellfish farms are located — and found "alarmingly high" amounts of plastic pollution.

"We found microbeads in the smallest bits of sediment and in a concentration equal to the amounts of silt and organic matter," Leah Bendell, professor of marine ecology and ecotoxicology at SFU, said in the statement.

Plastic pollution, Bendell told All Points West host Jason D'Souza, is a long-term problem.  Results from beach cleanups have found about 90 per cent of that plastic actually comes from the shellfish industry itself.

She says what still remains unknown is how the plastic, when eaten by shellfish, affect both them and the animals that feed on them. For instance, are the plastics contaminated with heavy metals?

"Those are the steps that we are at next to find out if this is of concern," she said.

She adds research has found that animals that eat microplastics have lower reproductive success.

"From the [shellfish] industry perspective, they would want to know this because they want their oysters to grow and be healthy," Bendell said.

Bendell says the ultimate solution is to keep plastics out of the ocean.

While shellfish farms' practices may be introducing much of that plastic into the ocean, she argues it is ultimately up to the federal government to develop better standards for the industry to follow.

Results from Bendell and her colleagues' research were published in the journal PLOS One.

Listen to the full interview:

With files from CBC Radio One's All Points West