Tuesday, August 8, 2023
At the height of summer, and with a new beach season underway, it's time to stand on the seashore and take a look at how the waters are doing. At first glance, it may seem that everything is fine, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The oceans are facing a serious problem due to the excess of microplastics, and just because we can't see them with the naked eye doesn't mean they aren't there. A group of scientists and surfers are now working together to make them visible in ‘Surfing for Science’.
"We started in 2018 with an end-of-degree project," says Oriol Uviedo, from the University of Barcelona, who is also coordinator of the ‘Surfing For Science’ project. Elsa Camins developed an "easy to use and cheap" network that allowed collecting seawater samples in areas where vessels that usually do so do not reach.
Thus, they had the technology to be able to measure what happens on the beaches and access information that is not collected when measuring what happens in marine waters. The problem is not only that large vessels cannot constantly be on patrol to collect samples, but also that they cannot enter the waters closer to the coast itself, which bathers are familiar with firsthand.
Having this network opens up new opportunities: adding surfers adds increases the number of people in charge of collecting seawater samples, something that is very necessary. For these marine athletes, water quality is an important factor because, as María Ballesteros, head of education and volunteering at Surfrider Spain, says, "we only know what it’s like during the summer season". This is the only time it is measured, even though, in reality, there are bathers - like the athletes themselves - out all year round.
In fact, Surfrider Spain started to take an interest in this issue because of an internal survey they conducted in Barcelona: they asked themselves what they wanted to find out, and discovered that what interested them most was to understand more about water pollution. And so, surfers on the one hand - as Ballesteros points out, there are many people who become volunteers - and researchers on the other ended up joining this project.
Surfing to understand the oceans
"We are not looking to clean up the sea, but to study what plastic is in it," says Uviedo. In other words, the volunteers are not a cleaning crew that goes into the water to collect waste, but an advance party that allows us to understand what is hidden in the marine waters, what we simply don’t see.
They use nets, which they deploy by combing a nautical mile (about a kilometer and a half) of water to collect a water sample. Ballesteros notes that they do it more or less at height at which the buoys that mark the bathing areas are placed in summer. Volunteers take samples every 15 days at previously agreed points. Receiving them every two weeks gives the researchers, as Uviedo points out, a high temporal resolution, enabling them to keep constant track of what’s happening on the coast.
Until now, the volunteers only collected samples in waters off Catalonia, but from now on they will also be collecting samples at points in the Basque Country. Both Uviedo and Ballesteros recognize the benefits of expanding the number of data collection points, because this would allow the comparison of different seas and even different geographical locations within the same sea. Of course this is something that they will only be able to do when they have access to sufficient funds.
The surfers collect the samples, but these are then sent to a lab where a team of researchers, led by Anna Sanchez, use them to understand what is happening in the seas.
A lot of microplastics
What have researchers discovered from these samples? "We expected high numbers of plastic particles, but have found even more than we thought we would," Uviedo explains. The data show that there are variations along the coast, but that there is also a significant concentration of microplastics in the Mediterranean bathing waters analyzed. For example, the concentration in Barcelona is very high. At some points, quantities similar to those found in those ‘black holes of marine pollution’ called ocean gyres have been detected. Bad weather or the effects of a breakwater on one of the beaches also impact some of the measurements, causing the amounts to be higher.
For now, data from the Basque Country are still in the laboratory. However, having that information will help to understand many questions, such as whether or not the fact that the Bay of Biscay is open sea versus the more enclosed Mediterranean has an impact on the concentration. Uviedo believes different types of plastics will be found, as "the origins are different". The different activities that occur on the shores will almost certainly impact the type of materials that reach the water.
Even if they are different, all these microplastics will still be a problem. It is "not only because of the presence of plastic," says Uviedo. He explains that these plastic particles can be eaten by fish, which is a serious problem, but that they also "create problems at a chemical level". "It's not just the fact that it's a plastic particle sitting there, but everything that goes with that particle," he says. Plastics, he points out, contain additives that are released into the sea and affect organisms in the waters - animals, and also humans themselves - as well as functioning as "reservoirs of bacteria".
"We have plastic particles in our blood, we breathe them in, they’re in the fish we eat," says Ballesteros. "We often see types of garbage on the beach in the water, but we are also concerned with knowing about what we don't see," he adds.
And when you consider that the problem of plastics has been growing as the years have gone by, it is clear that the final outcome is even more uncertain. As Uviedo explains, although measures have been put in place to mitigate some of the impacts of these materials, "we still continue produce large quantities of plastic.”
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