Waves of Change

Placentia Bay research catalogues shoreline plastics, big and small

From microplastics to bigger chunks, a research team is trying to find out what's there, and where it came from.

Research team is trying to find out what's there, and where it came from

Jessica Melvin is leading a four-year survey of plastic debris in Placentia Bay. (CBC)

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At this time of year, not many people in Newfoundland and Labrador spend their days at the beach. But for four days every month, researcher Jessica Melvin and her crew are out looking for plastic debris on Placentia Bay shorelines. 

The goal isn't to clean the beaches up, though Melvin, project co-ordinator for Memorial University's Placentia Bay Ocean Debris Survey, says she and her two colleagues do pick up after themselves and remove what they find.

The things they find are the reason why they're spending this time carefully combing through the seaweed sitting on shore. Melvin is looking for plastic — pieces bigger than 2.5 centimetres across, deposited by people, the wind, or the sea.

The search for plastics on the shorelines is tedious work, Melvin says. (CBC)

The team is also searching for microplastics, partitioning off eight half-metre-square sections of beach on the strand line and then putting everything into a bucket to bring back to the lab. Once there, they begin the time-consuming work of combing through the materials to look for plastics that are 1 millimetre or smaller across.

Over the course of the four-year survey, Melvin and her colleagues will put together a survey of the plastic found on the shores of this area. They hope that information can then be used to inform policy.

"By the time we're done we're going to have a very comprehensive baseline of debris in Placentia Bay," she said.

Next week, she will attend an ocean plastics conference at the Canadian Embassy in France, where she'll talk about her research and learn about what other scientists are doing around the world.

Remnants of the fishery

Visiting five or six locations around Placentia Bay, Melvin has learned so far that the most consistent thing is the lack of consistency.

"The first thing we found is that every single place is completely different," she said.

What washes up in Arnold's Cove, for example, is different from what comes up in St. Brides, or Port Lance, or on the other side of the Burin Peninsula.

In Arnold's Cove, the local assortment of beach plastic largely consisted of reminders of the fishery.

To look for microplastics, the group sections off a small area then brings everything within it back to the lab for sorting. (CBC)

"Most of what we're finding is things like threads from fishing ropes wearing and tearing. A lot of pieces of film and sheeting, a lot of lobster bands," Melvin said.

"Not a lot of things that look like litter."

Melvin hopes that by cataloguing the larger and smaller pieces of plastic found during the survey, the team can create a baseline that can indicate where waste on the shores is coming from and can later be used to measure against any changes.

For example, a lot of the waste that might come from a large aquaculture project would resemble waste from the fishing industry, Melvin said — both use ropes and nets.

But if a project began and then waste increased significantly compared to the baseline, that might indicate ways that the project could change.

'Nothing but strong interest'

Knowing what is on the shores now, and where it came from, also makes it easier to advocate for changes on a regional level, she said.

"That's what we want to know because we can't really do much in the way of regional management or policy unless we know where things are actually coming from for the region."

Melvin says they've gotten a couple questions about their winter beach visits, but people generally seem interested in and supportive of the work. (CBC)

The interest is there, Melvin said; her earlier work was in plastic ingestion in Atlantic cod, and even then people were taking notice of the issue, she said.

As she and her colleagues visit these coastlines each month, that interest continues — especially among people who rely on wild foods as a big part of their diets.

"I've had nothing but strong interest," she said.

"People have been really interested in this. They've come out to public meetings about it, they've asked questions, they've told us things that helped us learn more about it ourselves."

Join the discussion on the CBC Waves of Change Facebook group, or send us an email: wavesofchange@cbc.ca.

Read more articles from CBC's Waves of Change project

With files from Carolyn Stokes

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