Got fish guts? Why this MUN researcher needs a fresh supply

A Memorial University professor who studies plastics and marine life has an unusual request for people taking part in the recreational fishery.

Great deal of research depends on the ordinary person helping out

Max Liboiron is a professor of culture and technology at MUN researching ocean plastics. (Jane Adey/CBC)

Have you got guts? Fish guts, that is?

Max Liboiron, a professor of culture and technology at Memorial University, has been researching ocean plastics that are ending up in our sea life.

The scientific protocols surrounding ocean plastics were designed for very different climates than that of Newfoundland and Labrador's. 

Working with students and colleagues, Liboiron is developing systems for rocky beaches, icy shores and high winds. 

"We can have seven different weather impacts in a day here. So the science that is developed in other places doesn't work for Newfoundland," she told CBC Radio's The Broadcast.

'A big old shoelace in its gut'

Liboiron said a great deal of her research depends on the ordinary person helping out with the collection of data. 

Now, she is looking for the public's help. 

"So what we're looking for from people who fish, is we want your guts. We want your fish guts," Liboiron said with a chuckle.  

The interest is to know where this plastic is ending up, in particular in sea life.

"Last year we found 236 dovekies were wrecked in Holyrood …We looked in their bellies and about one-quarter of them had plastics in their belly."

"One of them even had a big old shoelace in its gut … so we know they're in birds, so our next test is to see if they're in fish, because we tend to eat fish."

Microplastics disappear between rocks

Presently, she is working on the "Fogo Protocol" that is studying how microplastics, which are smaller than a grain of rice and account for 92 per cent of all marine plastics, disappear between rocks. 

At Liboirin's lab, several hundred pieces of glass and debris from a beach on Fogo Island are cleaned and sorted by hand into different sizes. 

"The sizes that matter to science are plastics and objects that are bigger than 5mm and those that are smaller than 5mm."

Max Liboiron sorts through samples of glass and other stuff from a beach on Fogo Island. (Jane Adey/CBC)

"It took me a year to find a microplastic here, even though they are the most prevalent form of plastic, and it was because they were disappearing between the rocks and being blown away as soon as they hit the beach," she said.

Concentration is on Fogo Island right now because Arctic waters flow from the Labrador Strait.  

Plastics there are either local or from the Arctic, making it much easier to tell what's going on, said Liboiron  

Liboiron believes Newfoundland and Labrador can become a leader in research on marine plastics. 

"If you can do it in Newfoundland, you can do it anywhere, because we have the most extreme environment," she said, adding that residents are "amazingly good at sharing and helping each other."

Liboiron said people collaborate with university researchers "in a way that they don't in other places and they engage in research because the research matters to them. It matters whether you're eating fish or not that are full of plastics."

Samples will also be collected in St. John's. She said because it is an urban area, it will be easier to tell if debris is coming from the landfill at Robin Hood Bay.