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Students in Natural Sciences course studying microplastics in fish

February 19, 2016 2:48 PM
natural sciences fish

Fourteen students in a Natural Sciences seminar are conducting research along St. Augustine’s coasts to investigate a potential problem within the area’s fish: the presence of plastic.

The project began last year, when Assistant Professor Ed McGinley and his students started cataloguing the diversity of fish in surrounding waterways. Matthew Brown, another professor with an expertise in oceanography, expressed an interest in working together — so while McGinley identified fish, Brown analyzed plankton and water quality under a microscope. Brown made a surprising discovery: “Plastic,” McGinley recalled him saying.

“I had never considered that before – that fish could be consuming plastic,” McGinley said.

Around this time, he learned about the work of Maia McGuire, a scientist with the University of Florida doing her own research into microplastics as part of a project funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He informed McGuire, who gave a talk at Flagler last year, of his interest in learning more about the impact of microplastic on fish diets. She connected him with another researcher in New York doing similar research, and it is her method that he and his students employ in their field work.

“This research is important because not much research into plastics in fish has been done around here,” McGinley said. “Right now, we don’t know that plastic is in the stomach of fish, but we know that plastic is in the water. The logical assumption would be that there’s probably plastic in the fish. Our first step is to see if indeed that is the case.”

The objective is for 14 students in the capstone research course to identity and quantify fish types, measure plastic content in the select areas and to study the stomachs of 300 to 400 fish from local waterways.

McGinley was quick to point out the value of the research for students studying Natural Sciences — an experience unique to the Flagler College experience.

“Our students are getting hands-on research, but they’re not just doing things to do things,” he said. “We’ve gotten them involved in novel research – and that’s one of the most important things. They can say, ‘I was a part of a novel research project and collected that data.’ The research is informing something.”

If plastic is found within the fish, said McGinley, it could prompt other questions — Is plastic affecting the fish’s proper consumption of food if they feel ‘full’? Is their health in poor condition overall? And, how does the presence of plastic in fish stomachs impact those higher up the food chain, such as humans?

“I’d hate to say it’s absolutely safe to eat fish from the area,” he said. “But the research is not there to tell us it’s something we should avoid.”

For the time being, McGinley eats fish. He’s vowed to work on modifying other behaviors, such as reducing his plastic usage and buying fish locally (which eliminates the flight time of foreign fish and thus cuts down on carbon emissions). The lesson from his findings on microplastics, in St. Augustine and beyond, is clear.

“While it appears beautiful out there, it doesn’t mean that our actions aren’t having some kind of impact,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’d like people to be a little more conscious of their day-to-day behaviors.”

The Flagler students conducting the microplastics research will present their findings to the public April 21, from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Solarium. The event is open to the public.