National Geographic Society Newsroom

Through the Lens of a Microscope: How plastics are impacting our oceans

A visit to a laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, where a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are tackling the problem of ocean plastic.

By Jean Case, the National Geographic Society’s chairman of the board of trustees.

“Can you see it?” the young scientist asked as I struggled to focus on the image through the microscope. I was visiting an important laboratory in Honolulu, Hawaii, where a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are tackling a truly daunting and vexing problem: marine plastics and debris. The object of my attempted focus was a larval fish, part of a larger collection of young fish ranging from larval stage to 10 days old, that, while so small you need a microscope to see them, are particularly important to our oceans as we know them. My inability to focus in that moment had nothing to do with the technical settings of the microscope, but rather with the tears welling up in my eyes.

I had come to the lab to meet the team after reading about their work in our May 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine. The focus of the article is microplastics and the threat they represent not just to young marine life, but to a broader ecosystem that relies on healthy stocks of young fish. Just as the article conveys, the scientists described their work collecting samples from a thin slick of surface water just off the shore of the Hawaiian Islands. Teeming with sea life and organic particles, nowadays these slicks also contain abundant amounts of tiny plastic that the fish scoop up along with the organic sources of fish food. As National Geographic has chronicled, plastics are routinely found in the stomachs of marine life — from the smallest marine life to even the largest whales, some of which have washed up on shores with scores of plastic bags obstructing their digestive tracts.

But on this day in Honolulu, the focus was on the sea’s most vulnerable — larval and young fish. A shortbill spearfish (pictured below), just days old, swimming in a clear tube, looked just like a miniature version of the larger spearfish we see in the open sea. I felt as though I was witnessing the marine equivalent of a baby nursery, yet one in which there are no happy endings. Thus, the reason for my tears as I tried to focus. Each of these baby fish (not a scientific term, of course, but that is how I viewed them), when dissected, was found to contain microplastics. As oceanographer Jamison Gove explained to National Geographic Staff Writer Laura Parker: “They’ve beaten a lot of odds to get this far. They hatched, they found the slick, they’re feeding and growing. This is one-tenth of one percent that made it this far. They’re the lucky ones, and now plastics are coming in.”

A shortbill spearfish, just days old, swimming in a clear tube
Photo courtesy of Jean Case

The understanding of what takes place between the stage of a fertilized fish egg and the moment a young fish emerges is not well understood by science. What is known shows that the first feeding for these baby fish can determine life or death — whether they have organic material or plastic in their young systems. And although there are no good tools or technology to dissect some of smallest larval fish, another view into the microscope revealed plastic particles much smaller than grains of sand that were digestible for the young fish population. 

An image of two seabirds composed of plastic objects
Photo courtesy of Jean Case

The bird population is also suffering. At the entrance to the NOAA facility on Pearl Harbor where I visited the team hangs a beautiful work of art (pictured above) — yet learning its origin and purpose led to an entirely different perspective, and once again I felt the tears welling. This art is composed entirely of plastic objects removed from the stomachs of seabirds on the Hawaiian Islands. To fully appreciate it, a magnified view of the picture reveals plastic lighters and bits of plastic trash. It is a stunning memorial to the crisis that is taking shape on our land and in our oceans, a silent tsunami that is not a future threat, but one that today is taking from us precious life that helps sustain our planet and enriches us all.

You don’t have to be a scientist to play a role in changing the devastating trend that I witnessed under that microscope. Last year, National Geographic introduced a campaign called Planet or Plastic? As a start, we’re asking people everywhere to take a pledge to do what they can to reduce single-use plastics. As an example, years ago we made a commitment at the Case Foundation (where I serve as CEO) to eliminate our use of plastic water bottles. At the time, we were using 50-100 water bottles a week. That one decision by one small organization has likely eliminated more than 25,000 single-use plastics. Any office or home can consider this move. Adapt to using paper straws instead of plastic and ask businesses you frequent to do the same. When our new National Geographic partner, The Walt Disney Company, made a commitment to eliminate plastic straws from its parks, it estimated that will eliminate 175 million straws and 13 million stirrers each year. And you can make a commitment to reduce or eliminate use of plastic bags and ask businesses you frequent to do so as well. These are but a few ways you can begin to make a difference. For more ideas, check out these suggestions from National Geographic, including replacing plastic bags with reusable ones, avoiding plastic packaging and recycling when you can.

In addition, at National Geographic we are funding and spotlighting the work of many scientists, explorers and entrepreneurs who are chronicling and researching the issue of plastic pollution, working with governments to protect marine areas and finding future alternatives to plastics. And their work is diverse, everything from National Geographic Explorer Imogen Napper testing the effectiveness of filters for washing machines that could capture plastic microfibers before they are released into the water system to the sponsorship of an all-female expedition down the Ganges River in India to research the flow of plastic waste through the river system that is later found in the sea.

Plastic waste is impacting our oceans and our land on a massive scale. Change can happen when small acts, taken together, bring powerful results. The urgency of the moment calls for all the players on the field — individuals, governments and businesses — to make contributions to the effort. Not everyone will have the chance to discover the beauty of a shortbill spearfish that is just days old or witness a bug-eyed larval fish struggling to have a chance at life. But anyone and everyone can play a role in trying to ensure a brighter future for our planet and for the amazing life that it sustains.

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