Hidden within the West Coast’s popular sandy beaches are thousands of tiny pieces of plastic that are putting sealife, and humans, at risk.
“Plastics never actually go away, they break down to smaller and smaller pieces,” Ucluelet Aquarium’s Brittany Buirs told the Westerly News during a microplastics survey event at Cox Bay. “Microplastics in particular are affecting sea life and eventually making their way up the food chain and potentially affecting our health as humans.”
Microplastics are fragments smaller than five millimetres and the Ucluelet Aquarium has been documenting the type and amount of those fragments that are washing up on the West Coast through a citizen science survey project launched in 2017.
“It’s a citizen science project where anyone can come join to help learn about plastic pollution, how it’s affecting our coast, and help contribute to collecting scientific data…It’s a great opportunity to get outside, help clean our local shores and learn about a really important topic,” she said.
“Citizen science is really important because it engages people in an important topic and they can feel like they’re contributing to the health and well-being of the environment they live in…It also gets like-minded people together to bring ideas to their own communities, taking action and creating new leaders.”
The aquarium has been monitoring seven sites between Ucluelet and Tofino and invites residents and visitors to participate in the twice-a-month survey events to raise awareness while collecting valuable data.
“Most of our beaches are amazing and beautiful and when people come out and do this survey, they understand if you look a little closer and dig a little deeper you find small pieces of plastic,” she said. “These small pieces are not necessarily litter from someone on the beach, but they could have been broken down over thousands of kilometres away and made their way to our shore…Microplastics tell a global story that global effort is needed because the pollution we throw out here may affect a different part of the world and vice versa.”
Pat Sieber was one of the volunteer citizen scientists participating in the Cox Bay event and said she’d like to see more people taking advantage of the opportunities to learn about their coastline while protecting it.
“I enjoy doing this. It’s very interesting,” she said. “I’m passionate about the health of our oceans and I’m disturbed by the amount of plastics. The more real research and data we have, the more likely we are to get people to listen to us, I hope.”
Volunteer survey events are hosted twice a month where volunteers collect the top two centimetres of sand along 100 metre transect line placed at the last high tide mark.
“Every time we come out and survey, we are collecting ‘fresh’ plastic that has recently come in from the ocean,” Buirs said. “It’s not debris that has been sitting here, it’s fresh plastics that have just come in from the last high tide line.”
READ MORE: SeaChange panel talks microplastics
Volunteers focus on one-square-metre at a time, shaking sand through a sieve to collect microplastics, which are then documented.
“That way, we can really try and figure out what the most recent ocean currents and plastic types are telling us about how we can change our habits,” Buirs said. “The second part is being able to use this information to share with communities and people who lead and make change..Our actions in the long run will help protect the ocean and help protect our health as humans and help protect the marine life that we depend on.”
Anyone interested in supporting the survey as a sponsor or volunteer citizen scientist can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our coastal community is quite small and it relies on the ocean and its continued healthy longevity because of our food security and local economy,” she said. “We want it to continue to thrive because we need it and plastic is threatening it.”
Along with gathering data to share with governments, Buirs hopes drawing attention to the amount of plastics polluting local shores will motivate West Coast residents and visitors to reduce the amount of plastics they are using in their day-to-day lives.
“Start with the toothbrush in your house or taking re-useable bags to the grocery store or a [reuseable] mug to the coffee shop,” she said. “Those are small steps that eventually trickle into new habits that stop plastic entering the ocean.”
Anyone wanting to learn more about plastic alternatives is encouraged to check out a plastic display at the Ucluelet Aquarium.