Studying the ocean plastic pollution: all about the life of the Race for Water scientists!

Over the past two weeks, six European scientists from the Ephemare project have been aboard the Race for Water vessel to study the plastic pollution of the oceans. What are the protocols, the aims and the techniques used?  Explanations from Bénédicte Morin, teacher and research at the University of Bordeaux.

 

Six European scientists from the Ephemare study project sampling beaches to learn about plastic pollution.

Race for Water (R4W): What have you come to study in the waters around Guadeloupe and how is this approach breaking new ground?

Bénédicte Morin (BM): We’ve come to study the quantity, the type and the toxicity of the microplastics present in various environments within the ecosystem. We’ve tested four of these environments: sand, sediment, water and biota (the latter corresponds with individuals living in the marine environment). During the 2015 odyssey, we studied pollution via microplastics from the beach environment the world over. This time, we’re interested in having a global vision of the plastic contamination through the study of various areas spanning the same sampling site.

 

On board, the first analyses !

R4W: How do you obtain samples of microplastics in these different areas?

BM: On the beaches, we use a quadrant technique, which means delimiting a zone on the beach so as to quantify and then qualify the microplastics present on site. With regards to the surface of the water, we tow ‘nets’ behind the vessel. We collect microplastics or plankton, very small organisms at the root of the food chain, according to the size of the mesh for each net. In order to test the sediment (gravel, sand or mud found at the bottom of the water), we dive down and pick up a sample of the soil with the help of a Van Veen grab. To round off our work, we bought some fish from the local fishermen and then dissected them so we could analyse the presence of microplastics in the digestive tract. We were able to take samples from organisms such as sea urchins and oysters near the beaches sampled.

 

Studiing sand and sediment to understand all cycle of plastic pollution.

R4W: What results have you amassed from this sampling?

BM: For now, we’ve only completed the ‘harvesting’ stage. All our samples will be sent off to our universities in Italy and France. The characterisation of microplastics is a procedure that is carried out in a laboratory environment and requires a certain amount of time.

However, we’ve chosen to study two sites in Guadeloupe: one on the eastern seaboard of the island of Basse Terre and the other on south-eastern seaboard of the island of Marie-Galante, so those that have debris from the Atlantic washing up on their beaches. We’ve observed a greater abundance of macro and microplastic on the eastern seaboard of the island of Marie-Galante probably linked to the waste carried along by the currents that make up the North Atlantic gyre, which notably include a vast amount of fibre from fishing activities. The Basse Terre site, despite being located on the Atlantic coast, is probably protected from the waste by the neighbouring island of Grande Terre.

 

Propulsed by renewables energies, the Race for Water vessel is used by scientists to study plastic pollution in Guadeloupe.

R4W: In conclusion, what do you think of this oceanic campaign with the Race for Water Foundation?

BM: Quite frankly, I’m delighted and I’m sure my colleagues are too. The vessel is incredibly spacious and we can carry out some high-quality work on her, added to which the teams aboard the boat have given us a very warm welcome. It’s just extraordinary to be able to carry out oceanic studies without any environmental impact and noise-free thanks to this vessel being propelled by clean energies.

Fly-tipping and mangrove

 

“There was the Guadeloupe before, and after this experiment in the mangrove”, says Serge Pittet, CEO of the Foundation. Whilst it had been over a week since the teams from Race for Water had been criss-crossing the island in order to try to understand the problem of plastic pollution, the conclusions were supposedly rather positive: no massive piles of rubbish on the beaches, a few abandoned bin bags but not really any sign of fly-tipping. Everyone seemed to be breathing a sigh of relief. “You haven’t been to the right places,” retorts Julien, a fishing guide on the island. For several years, the young man has been bringing his fishing-fanatic clients into the mangrove with a ‘no-kill’ policy, a technique aimed at immediately releasing the fish after catching it. “If you like, I can call round to collect you at dawn on Monday morning to show you the reality”.

At 6:30am on the dot, Serge and Peter, the Foundation’s media man, climb aboard Julien’s little flat-bottomed boat. Initially running parallel to the refinery in Point-à-Pitre, it’s amidst a setting of vast tanks marked ‘heavy fuel’ and ‘residue’ that the explorers slowly make headway. In the distance, they can make out a beach, covered in macro-waste. “The ambient air smelt of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), but it would have been necessary to analyse the water and the sand”, explains Serge. According to Julien, this odour was due to the decaying green algae, a remnant from the recent passage of Hurricane Maria.

Heading deeper into the mangrove, Julien then takes them along a branch of the Rivière Salée (Salt River), which the fishermen have nicknamed “rivière caca” (poo river). “We were making our way along the dump at La Gabarre, which we guessed had a massive mound of ochre red earth behind it,” says Serge. “From a distance, the water just looked a little brownish. As we got closer, we discovered a large quantity of plastic waste of all kinds, abandoned cars, TV screens stuck in the sludge and even a dead animal”. For the first time since they’d arrived in Guadeloupe, the Race for Water teams discovered a fly-tipping site. According to certain sources, the latter has been around for many years and, though selective sorting of waste is now compulsory on the island, through ease perhaps some people are still disposing of their waste in the river. “Clearly, it’s important to continue raising awareness among the local inhabitants, explaining to them about the toxicity of plastic waste and helping them to take action. These findings repeated throughout this tour of the islands give meaning to the actions carried out by the Foundation,” says Peter.

 

Visit from a very special class

 

When Annabelle began her speech during one of the many visits from schools aboard the boat, little did she know that she would come face to face with such special students. “This particular class has been entrusted with the task of managing a protected marine area by the Ministry of National Education and the Environment”, explains Yanni Bardail proudly, director of the school. At just 10 years of age, these children have been carrying out activities in the area to help preserve it and raise awareness among the population in a bid to protect Loquet cove in St-François, to the south of the island. From the classrooms they head out to clean the beach, work with scientists, measure and collect rubbish and inform the local population about the need to preserve the fauna and flora along Guadeloupe’s coastline.

 

PLASTIC, THE NO.1 ENEMY

“On our beach, there are two types of plastics: those that people throw away and those which come from the sea”, explains one child. Aware of the importance of education, the students are raising awareness among the local inhabitants through information campaigns and display boards to explain the life cycles of the endemic species and take political action: “Last year, the town hall wanted to set up a tourist attraction on the beach. The students then wrote letters in order to explain the vital importance of this site for turtles, it being one of the rare egg laying sites,” said the Director. It proved to be a very successful action for these young children, which resulted in the attraction being moved to a less sensitive site. “We are training up the youngsters, who are environmentally-responsible, future scientists as well as tomorrow’s politicians,” says Yanni Bardail. “Being able to come along and meet Race for Water shows the children that they’re not alone and that other people are carrying out action too on a grand scale. They understand how important their action is, even though they’re still only children.” Inevitably this is a class that the Race for Water Foundation hopes to continue to follow. See you in January!

 

Mon École ma Baleine and the Guadeloupe’s Network of Marine Turtles alongside Race for Water to raise children’s awareness about plastic pollution of the oceans