A new study from a Maine marine research laboratory has found that microplastics in the sea can impact the growth of lobsters.
Researchers at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay say the growth of lobsters is negatively impacted when they ingest microplastics, defined by scientists as plastic particles five millimeters or smaller.
According to Dr. Patricia Matrai, a senior research scientist at the laboratory and lead researcher of the recently published microplastics study, the problem begins when lobster larvae mistake the plastics for microscopic algae.
"Plastics are light, they're less dense than seawater. They're going to float to the surface, they're going to accumulate in a very thin layer, which is exactly where these larvae live before they sink and migrate to the sediment," said Matrai, adding the plastics can also sink to the ocean floor and sit there too.
To figure out what the lingering effects of plastics in the lobster larvae's digestive systems would be, the scientists examined their breathing too since some were too delicate to measure in size.
They discovered there was indeed a relationship between how much plastic the crustaceans had in their bodies, their respiration, and by extension, their growth.
"If the organism can't breathe very well then they're not going to grow very well," Matrai said.
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She explained that the findings add to other problems like warming waters and ocean acidification already having an effect on the number of Maine lobsters that make it to a size that can be caught.
"When you have organisms that may be weakened already and you add a third problem, [warming waters and acidification] have a stronger effect," she said.
Eliminating the plastic would, therefore, have a positive impact on lobsters' chances of living healthy lives but, scientists say the reality of doing that isn't as simple as pulling all the plastic bags and bottles out of harbors and waterways.
"Even if we were to get rid of all the larger plastics in the ocean, they're already there and they're falling apart," Matrai said.
"The issue of microplastics is not going anywhere," she added saying, for now, her solution is for humans to "reduce, remove, reuse and reeducate [themselves on] plastics."
As for alternative recyclable materials now being substituted for plastics, Matrai said research on that is ongoing and that many of those materials can only decompose in industrial settings.