Massive amounts of small plastics constantly float around the ocean. Even though they may seem insignificant in terms of size, their impact can be powerful. In light of this, a team of professors and students on Eckerd’s campus are leading the way for microplastic research in Tampa Bay.
“What’s really cool is that we are the institution that is doing research on microplastics in Tampa Bay,” Professor of Marine Science Amy Siuda said. “We’re the ones with the funding to do it, we are working hard to understand it, and we’ve got the team going.”
The main professors leading this project are Siuda, Professor of Marine Science and Chemistry David Hastings and Professor of Marine Science and Biology Shannon Gowans. They have a team of student interns and volunteers that are dedicated to the research, including all of the sample processing and data analysis.
Ford Scholar Delphine Carroll is working on developing her senior thesis based off the project. Sophomores Sabrina Sorace and Jennifer Necker are paid interns. There are also five first-year research associates, and numerous other student volunteers.
“We have an army working on the microplastic research. A lot of hands make easy work,” Siuda said.
About seven years ago, Hastings began sampling the water in Tampa Bay to study the amounts of microplastics. This sampling developed into an ongoing research project funded by the Tampa Bay Environmental Program to analyze the abundance, distribution and impact of microplastics in Tampa Bay.
The plastic itself is not toxic, but harmful chemicals that can cause adverse effects — persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) — stick to the plastics very easily and then impact the organisms that ingest them.
Water samples provide a baseline for the microplastics that are simply floating in the water. Sampling in the sediments can possibly provide clues into how the abundance of plastics has changed over time. Carroll stresses the importance of sampling the microplastics in copepods (small crustaceans found in the sea) in her senior thesis.
“Copepods are near the base of the trophic levels in the ocean and so doing research on their interaction with microplastics and if they are eating them can give an insight to the role that microplastics will then play up through the food chains,” Carroll said.
The team also has the not-so-glamorous job of analyzing the guts of manatees. They are important to research in terms of how the microplastics impact larger organisms in the bay.
“We’re assuming the microplastics are ending up in there because the microplastics may be attached to the seagrass that they’re eating, and not necessarily coming from a large piece breaking down in their gut,” Siuda said.
The researchers are also very interested in the effluent from wastewater treatment plants, especially the one neighboring Eckerd. Although the plants are effective at removing most of the waste and plastic in the water, microplastic fibers in particular are so small that they can’t all be dealt with.
“We think a lot about social justice issues, we think a lot about how people interact with each other, and I think we are still not at the point where everybody’s thinking about their interactions with the environment,” Siuda said. “That’s important for us to do as well, because if we don’t think about our interaction with the environment we aren’t going to have a world to live in.”