Scientists from the University of Exeter, Galapagos Conservation Trust (GCT), and the Galapagos Science Center have made a grim discovery on the Island of San Cristobal where Charles Darwin first landed in the Galapagos.
In a new study, published in Science of the Total Environment, the authors describe the discovery of macro and microplastics in all of the marine habitats of the Island, including a beach that's home to the extremely rare "Godzilla" marine iguana. Plastics were also found in other habits such as rocky lava shores and mangroves on the Island.
"The pristine image of Galapagos might give the impression that the islands are somehow protected from plastic pollution, but our study clearly shows that's not the case," Dr Ceri Lewis, of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, said in a statement. "There are less than 500 Godzilla marine iguanas in existence, and it's concerning that they are living alongside this high level of plastic pollution."
Moreover, the findings suggest that only 2% of "macroplastic" (plastic fragments larger than 5 millimeters) identified was coming from the surrounding Islands. Most were brought to the location by ocean currents from elsewhere, the authors suggest. "Our study highlights how far plastic pollution travels, and how it contaminates every part of marine ecosystems," lead author on the study Dr Jen Jones said.
The scientists also discovered various quantities of microplastics inside different marine invertebrates such as barnacles and urchins, which may result in harm to the local food web. "These animals are a crucial part of food webs that support the larger species that famously live on and around the Galapagos Islands," Jones added.
Concerning as it already is, Jones and colleagues also identified marine vertebrates that are most at risk of ingesting larger macroplastics or potentially getting entangled in larger items discarded by humans. The animals most at risk were hammerhead and whale sharks, sea lions, and sea turtles living on and off the coastline in the region.
Plastic pollution remains an ever-increasing problem for ecosystems and marine animals. For example, microplastics have now been identified in several marine species, including turtles, though their direct influence on health remains unclear. "The potential health effects of plastic ingestion on marine animals are largely unknown, and more research is needed," said Jones.
The ocean is riddled with these microscopic particles, whose reach stretches as far out as the sea ice regions of Antarctica, and it isn't going to go away anytime soon. If we want to prevent a disaster in the years to come, we will have to tackle the pollution head-on and reduce our dependency on plastic before it's too late.
"Given the level of pollution we have found in this remote location, it's clear that plastic pollution needs to stop at source. You can't fix the problem just by cleaning beaches." Jones concludes.