A Microplastics Survey of New Hampshire Beaches: A Citizen Science Pilot Study

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Project Type: 
Research
Project Number: 
M/D-1302
Inception Date: 
2013
Completion Date: 
2014

Participants:

Gabriela Bradt N.H. Sea Grant Principal Investigator
Alyson Eberhardt N.H. Sea Grant Co-Principal Investigator
Jennifer Kennedy Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation Co-Principal Investigator
Proposal: 

Video

Taking a closer look at microplastics on N.H. beaches (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBRk0ZjkZcA)

2014 Accomplishments

NHSG research estimates 7.5 million pieces of microplastics are present on N.H. beaches
Microplastics — pieces of plastic between 1-5 mm — are a growing ecological concern both globally and locally. However, the prevalence of microplastics on N.H. beaches is unknown. With funding provided by a N.H. Sea Grant development grant, researchers worked with citizen scientists to collect microplastic samples on eight N.H. beaches. Results compiled in 2014 indicate there are potentially 7.5 million pieces of microplastics present on those beaches. This research provides a baseline estimate of microplastic abundance that will help to inform future studies on the topic.

N.H. Sea Grant microplastics research engages and educates 177 volunteers
Although research and surveys on microplastics — pieces of plastic between 1-5 mm — have been taking place on the global scale, very little is known about the prevalence of microplastics on N.H. beaches. NHSG-funded researchers conducted sampling on eight N.H. beaches to learn more about microplastics on the Seacoast. In 2014, NHSG-funded researchers engaged 177 volunteers in the various aspects of the study ranging from sample collection to sorting the pieces back in the lab. Most of the volunteers expressed that this research provided them with an increased understanding of microplastics and their potential impacts on N.H. beaches. This research has helped spread awareness of microplastics and provided researchers with additional manpower to conduct studies they otherwise might not be able to undertake due to financial and time constraints.

N.H. Sea Grant research finds three N.H. beaches most impacted by microplastics
Plastic litter that washes into the ocean or is left on beaches can break down into tiny pieces called microplastics. Microplastics are often overlooked on beach clean-ups due to their small size, but there is growing concern over their impact on the environment. With funding provided by a NHSG development grant, researchers collected samples from eight N.H. beaches to determine the distribution of microplastics along the Seacoast. Research results compiled in 2014 indicate that three N.H. beaches are the most impacted by microplastics, including Jenness Beach, Hampton Beach and Hampton Harbor. This research will help scientists and resource managers to target their future sampling and management efforts to the areas that are most impacted by microplastics.

NHSG researchers develop sampling protocols to determine microplastics abundance, distribution on N.H. beaches
Despite a growing concern about microplastics — pieces of plastic 1-5 mm in size — on beaches throughout the world, very little is known about the prevalence of microplastics on the N.H. Seacoast. In 2014, N.H. Sea Grant-funded researchers developed field sampling and sorting protocols to determine the abundance and distribution of microplastics on N.H. beaches. These protocols will allow researchers and citizen scientists to learn more about how microplastics are impacting the Seacoast and provide a standardized approach to sampling for comparisons among sites.

2013 Accomplishment

Two videos inform and engage the public about N.H. Sea Grant research

N.H. Sea Grant produced two videos in 2013 about research projects focused on microplastics on N.H. beaches and alewife populations in coastal rivers. Both research projects were funded by NHSG. The videos were shared on social media and one was uploaded to the research page of the NHSG website, allowing the description of the research to evolve into a “living document” and gain a longer shelf-life in the news. Videos serve as a companion piece to written news stories about the research, engaging audiences in a more effective manner and encouraging volunteer participation in the research when possible, as was the case with the microplastics project.

Proposal

The presence and concentration of microplastics on our beaches and in the ocean is of high environmental concern because the likelihood of accidental ingestion is high for both humans and other marine organisms and birds. In recent years, the problem of marine debris and plastics has been shown to have significant environmental, economic and social impacts around the globe.

This pilot study focuses on assessing the amount and type of marine microplastics present along the beaches in New Hampshire. Microplastics are minute fragments of plastic debris <5 mm in diameter consisting of a number of different synthetic polymers including polyester, acrylic, polypropelene and polyethylene (Leslie et al, 2011). Microplastics can be classified as 1) primary – where they are specifically manufactured at a microscopic size or 2) secondary – where minute fragments are derived from the breakdown of larger plastic debris. Degradation of plastics is extremely slow, thus microplastics can persist for long periods of time in the environment and can be vehicles for toxic contamination to marine organisms and humans. The composition and surface area of microplastic fragments allows for the adherence of waterborne organic pollutants and leaching of plasticizers that are considered toxic (Cole et al, 2011). Ingestion of microplastics may introduce toxins into the base levels of the food chain where the potential for bioaccumulation can occur (Teuten et al, 2009).

Data from the Marine Debris to Energy project (nhmarinedebris.org), which includes data collected from hundreds of coastal cleanups over six years, show that on N.H. beaches 82% of all debris collected is one form of plastic. Based on these data, I hypothesize that the concentration of microplastics on New Hampshire beaches will be high, with significantly higher concentrations at three of the most heavily used beaches. In collaboration with Blue Ocean Society and the Coastal Research Volunteers (CRV), I propose to conduct a microplastics assessment on three of New Hampshire’s most impacted (heavily used) beaches and one un-impacted (low use) beach. Three to five samples will be collected from each beach on a monthly basis for 1 year. Samples will also be collected from each beach after two major weather events during that year to see how severe weather will impact the concentration of microplastics. With the aid of the CRV, the samples will be processed and microplastic pieces 1-5mm will be isolated, categorized, quantified and statistical analyses will be performed.

Collaborating partners for the proposed study include Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, and Alyson Eberhardt and The Coastal Research Volunteers from New Hampshire Sea Grant. These partners will provide assistance with project coordination, training and labor for processing samples. In addition, preliminary communications with Dr. Steve Jones indicate that space could be made available in his laboratory to conduct some of the sample processing.

This research is in line with the Healthy Coastal Ecosystems and Marine Debris priorities in the latest Strategic Plan and to my knowledge, is the first study to examine the presence (and concentration) of marine microplastics on New Hampshire beaches. Results from this research will lead to future proposals for a more comprehensive, regional microplastics assessment encompassing beaches from York, Maine to Newburyport, Mass. This expanded study would explore distribution patterns, concentration and types of microplastics as well as their sources and potential mitigation strategies.

References:

Cole, M, Lindique, P, Halsband C, Galloway TS (2011). Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment: A review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 62:2588-2597

Leslie, HA, Van der Meulen MD, Kleissen, FM, Vethaak, AD (2011). Microplastic litter in the Dutch marine environment. Deltares report. 104 pp.

Teuten, EL, Rowland, SJ, Galloway, TS, Thompson RC (2007). Potential for plastics to transport hydrophobic contaminants. Environmemntal Science and Technology, 41:7759-7764