Faculty Contacts: Carolyn Fonyo (Environmental Sciences), Shawn Rowe (College of Education/Oregon Sea Grant/Environmental Sciences, HMSC), Vrushali Bokil (Mathematics), Susanne Brander (Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, Marine Studies Initiative)

Topic: A systems-based understanding of microplastic impacts on ecological and human health

Background: Marine anthropogenic debris, primarily in the form of plastics, is ubiquitous and persistent, and comprises up to 95% of all waste in global oceans and on beaches. The amount of plastic entering the marine environment continues to increase annually, and it is estimated that over 5 million metric tons of plastic ends up as marine litter each year. Microplastics, 0.0001-5 mm in size, have been documented throughout the water column, in surface waters, sediments, and in marine organisms and pose a potential global threat to marine ecosystems. The microplastic problem is particularly pronounced in coastal zones due to their proximity to terrestrial inputs as well as tidal processes that provide favorable conditions for debris accumulation. To date, bivalves cultured or fished for in coastal areas are the most well-represented group in the field of microplastics research due to their sessile nature, filter or suspension feeding modes, and ecological, economic, and cultural importance. Because the entire body is ingested as seafood, bivalves may represent a common route of microplastic exposure to humans. Sources of microplastics to animals such as bivalves are varied but include intentional and unintentional littering, run-off, wastewater treatment outfalls (e.g. microfibers from clothing), and aquaculture equipment (e.g. synthetic ropes). Plastics and associated chemicals are not only a physical obstruction but may also influence the health of individual marine species and the trophic cascade including humans that ingest them, in particular by potentially altering endocrine responses.


Existing Data: Data on microplastic occurrence (from peer-reviewed literature), fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), presence of bivalve aquaculture, urban areas, and wastewater treatment outfalls (Environmental Protection Agency) will be integrated to produce a systems based model that predicts the most impactful sources of plastic pollution (Risk and Uncertainty, Big Data). Through the development of this model students will gain an understanding of biological and ecological systems, and how they influence one another. The model could also be used to predict potential microplastic loads, health effects to humans ingesting both aquacultured and wild-caught organisms, and socio-economic impacts, with a likely focus on bivalves (Risk and Uncertainty, Big Data). An overarching goal is that tools developed could be applied to other geographical locations or fishery types and coordinated with other collaborative citizen science efforts such as Adventure Scientists and microplasticsurvey.org, or the COASST marine debris survey. Findings will be presented via Oregon Sea Grant programming for coastal stakeholders such as a workshop for professionals at he Hatfield Marine Science Center based on existing data on public perceptions and knowledge of marine debris available from the Free-Choice Learnng Lab (Human Dimensions). Evaluation of workshop outcomes will be carried out with OSG Cyberlab techniques and equipment (https://www.freechoicelearninglab.com/). Public awareness of the effects and impacts of marine microplastic debris and how those influence attitudes towards consumer responsibility and environmental protection (Human Dimensions) may be enhanced by the development of informational flyers, signage, web materials,and/or the development of a toolbased app to enhance public awareness and participation in citizen science.


Desired Area(s) of Expertise for Students which complete the three “legs” core concepts of the Risk and Uncertainty Quantification in Marine Science Program: Students with expertise in environmental sciences including fisheries science, marine biology, environmental education, socio-economic impact and environmental risk assessment, and mathematical and systems-based modeling are asked to apply.

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