8 October, 2018 Press releases

The amount of plastic washing up onto the shores of remote South Atlantic islands is 10 times greater than it was a decade ago, according to new research published today (8 October) in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists investigating plastics in seas surrounding the remote British Overseas Territories discovered they are invading these unique biologically-rich regions. This includes areas that are established or proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

The study shows for the first time that plastic pollution on some remote South Atlantic beaches is approaching levels seen in industrialised North Atlantic coasts.

During four research cruises on the BAS research ship RRS James Clark Ross between 2013 and 2018, a team of researchers from ten organisations sampled the water surface, water column and seabed, surveyed beaches and examined over 2000 animals across 26 different species.

The amount of plastic reaching these remote regions has increased at all levels, from the shore to the seafloor. More than 90% of beached debris was plastic, and the volume of this debris is the highest recorded in the last decade.

Plastics found washed up on the beach in St Helena. Photo credit: Dave Barnes.

Lead author Dr David Barnes from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) explains:

“Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine. Plastic waste has increased a hundred-fold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds.”

The largest concentration of plastic was found on the beaches. In 2018 we recorded up to 300 items per metre of shoreline on the East Falkland and St Helena – this is ten times higher than recorded a decade ago. Understanding the scale of the problem is the first step towards helping business, industry and society tackle this global environmental issue.”

Plastic causes many problems including entanglement, poisoning and starving through ingestion. The arrival of non-indigenous species on floating plastic “rafts” has also been identified as a problem for these remote islands. This study highlights that the impacts of plastic pollution are not only affecting industrialised regions but also remote biodiverse areas, which are established or proposed MPAs.

Andy Schofield, biologist, from the RSPB, who was involved in this research says:

“These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet’s health.  It is heart-breaking watching Albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere.  This is a very big wake up call.  Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health.”

Marine plastics threaten giant Atlantic Marine Protected Areas by D.K.A. Barnes, S.A. Morley, J. Bell, P. Brewin, K. Brigden, M. Collins, T. Glass, W.P. Goodall-Copestake, L. Henry, V. Laptikhovsky, N. Piechaud, A. Richardson, P. Rose, C.J. Sands, A. Schofield, R. Shreeve, A. Small, T. Stamford, and B. Taylor is published in the journal Current Biology here.

DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.064