Scientists Investigate San Francisco Bay Plastics Issue

From small local rivers to the world's oceans, the earth's waterways are one of the most heavily impacted areas in terms of manmade pollution. Whether it's runoff from landfills, illegally dumped waste, or large-scale industrial disasters, even problems that occur far inland eventually work their way to the oceans, threatening aquatic flora and fauna integral to the wider food chain. A new coalition of scientists has recently begun a project along the San Francisco Bay area to determine both the source and impact of this issue.

Drawing from both the 5 Gyres Institute and the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the group of scientists are set to start a two year investigation into the San Francisco Bay ecosystem to determine more about the problem of microplastics in the state's nearby fishing waters. With over seven and half million people living in the Bay area, the region seemed the perfect spot to investigate urban pollution effects in a fairly well contained waterway, according to Rebecca Sutton of the Estuary Institute.

The project essentially has two main goals: determine where plastics in the Bay come from and where they eventually end up. The scientists and researchers will make use of a manta trawl, a net system which attaches to the back of the research vessel and is so named because of its similar shape to the manta ray. The trawl is capable of capturing plastic particles so small that they are undetectable by the human eye. Their small size makes them no less threatening as these fine particles work their way inside of local fish populations, who eventually wind up on the dinner tables of San Francisco residents.

Another issue with the large content of plastic, according to 5 Gyres Institute researcher Anna Cummins, is that the material also acts as a draw for harmful chemicals. Flame retardants, the insecticide DDT, and the popular coolant additive PCBs are drawn to the plastic material and absorbed as if by a sponge, thereby compounding the issue if ingested by local marine life. Some of the plastics found belong to classes that have already been outlawed, such as the microbeads in skin scrubs and toothpastes, but this hardly accounts for all of the problem. They believe another source may be from synthetic clothing materials that integrate fiber-like plastics which in turn shed. In addition to the Bay area, the research team also plans to investigate local marine sanctuaries, treatment plants, and even storm drains.


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