Fighting a tidal wave of plastic

Article by · May 25, 2017 ·

Spectacular tourist photos don’t yet show it, but our waterways are increasingly being spoiled by plastic pollution. JULIA REISSER is leading research and helping raise awareness of the problem.

BY PARIS BOSCH

When the search began for missing Malaysian Airlines aircraft MH370 over the southern ocean there were a series of sightings that later turned out to be false alarms.

What the spotters thought were aircraft fragments later turned out to be large chunks of plastic pollution swirling in one of the world’s known hotspots for marine garbage debris.

When it does eventually break down, tiny plastic particles remain present in the ocean ecosystem.

Just what effect it is having on marine systems, including the fish consumed by humans is something Julia Reisser is studying.

Beachside holidays in the south of Brazil as a child sparked her love of the ocean that has transformed itself into a lifetime pursuit to save our waters.

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“I always enjoyed being in any coastal environment, so when I became a bit older I decided to do oceanography so that I could help conserve the ocean. There’s nothing I love more in this world than being close to the ocean and researching it.”

Julia began her studies in Brazil, where she completed a Bachelor of Science Degree in Oceanography and
a Master’s Degree in Biological Oceanography.

During this time she lived experiences that many of us could only dream of, including three research expeditions to Antarctica.

“It was a very different environment and an amazing experience. On one of the expeditions, I even had the chance to camp on the beautiful Elephant Island for 40 days, where I worked with elephant seals and penguins.”

A need to learn English led Julia on another great adventure in 2009, when she moved to Australia to further pursue her studies.

“I realised that to become a researcher it was very important to learn English, but I’m from a very small town in Brazil where we were only taught Spanish in school.”

“Australia has a beautiful coastline and so it was the perfect choice for me.”

Now Julia is completing her PhD out of the University of Western Australia. Her studies takes her the full loop around Australia’s coastline, measuring the levels of plastic pollution.

“When I’m on the boat I have a net. The mouth of the net is half a metre long. Basically I put the net in the water and pull it for a certain time so it collects water right at the surface of the ocean where the plastic floats.”

“Once I’ve finished dredging a sample area, I count how many plastic pieces I’ve collected and I get an idea of the concentration of plastics in different areas around Australia.”

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Through this research, Julia has uncovered a staggering amount of plastic pollution, with an average of 4000 pieces of plastic being found per square kilometre. “The majority of the plastic I find is very tiny, smaller than 5mm long. Mostly these

fragments come from throw away packaging that has been lost to the environment, but I’ve also found a lot of fragments from fishing gear, such as fishing lines and nets.”

Despite their small size, Julia maintains that the broader impacts of these pollutants are significant, with plastics posing a substantial risk to marine life and even human health.

“When the plastic gets into the ocean its surface properties lead to it acting like a sponge for oily pollutants such as fertilisers that are floating in the water too. So when an organism eats the plastic fragments they consume these pollutants as well.”

“The result is a process that we call biomagnification. A little fish eats the polluted plastic and then a bigger fish eats lots of contaminated little fish. This leads to higher concentrations of pollutants in the big fish.”

“By eating seafood, these pollutants can even end up on our plates. It’s a horrifying fact.“

While the results are quite alarming, Julia maintains that bringing attention to such an important issue is a very rewarding experience.

“My research is quite significant, as it’s important to realise just how connected we are to the oceans. It works both ways – we might hurt the ocean by throwing plastics into it, but that comes back at us too.”

Julia says we can all play a part in reducing plastic pollution levels by being more mindful of the amount of plastic we use in our daily lives.

“We can all try to reduce our plastic footprint. It’s important to realise that a plastic cup or plastic packaging that we might only use for a few minutes can last in the environment forever.”

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My Top 5 – Julia Reisser

1. Ningaloo Reef, WA
“I particularly like the North West shelf of Ningaloo Reef. There’s a place there for camping and if you go around January/February then you can find lots of baby turtles hatching on the beach early in the morning. There’s also great snorkeling, so it’s one of my favourite spots.”

2. Bruny Island, TAS
“The nature there is unbelievable. I highly recommend the boat tours, as they take you around the island and show you stunning rocks and forests. Camping there is also really nice.”

3. Rottnest Island, WA
“I very highly recommend Rottnest Island. You can get there by boat from Perth, and there are no cars, so people just travel around by bicycle. There are amazing beaches and snorkeling is great too. You can even see seals from some of the beaches!”

4. Great Ocean Road, VIC
“If travelling by car, you should definitely drive along Great Ocean Road. The views are stunning, the coastline is amazing and it makes for a great experience.”

5. Eco Beach, WA
“I worked in the sea moratorium program there. Close to Broome, it’s a very relaxing and peaceful place – they even run yoga classes in the morning!”


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