Petri dish with sample of debri and plastic

The fate of Mermaid's Tears


PML and the Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) join forces on new ocean investigations.

Beaches littered with bottles and other plastic waste are an all too common sight; less obvious, but still widespread on many coastlines, are the so-called mermaids’ tears - tiny plastic beads used as the raw material in the manufacture of larger items, which have entered the marine realm and Mermaid's tears, small plastic beads, can be seen clearly in a jar of sand from a Devon beach are now almost ubiquitous. Yet even these are still large compared to the microplastics (less than 1mm) which can enter the marine environment and be a threat to even the smallest marine creatures. But what happens when mermaids’ tears and other plastic debris break into pieces so small that they are almost impossible to detect except through the world’s most sophisticated microscopes. These are the nano-plastics and apart from being present in our castaway debris they are also used in toothpaste and cleaning materials, ending up in the sea after avoiding being trapped during wastewater treatment. Apart from any physical damage that plastic fragments can cause to marine life, blocking the digestive system for example, all plastics carry a cocktail of toxic substances and have the capacity to adsorb and concentrate persistent organic pollutants from the environment. As nano-particles are small enough to cross cell membranes their presence and impacts in marine ecosystems are especially worrying. Finding, analysing and assessing the nano-plastic particles is a major new thrust of the PML-KIOST collaboration.

A further collaborative research area will use satellite remote sensing data and PML expertise to understand the long-term variability of chlorophyll in Korean waters. Chlorophyll density is a measure of the amount of phytoplankton in surface waters, itself an indicator of how productive the seas are. Local and global changes can affect when, where and how plankton blooms form, but local changes can also have influence, so particular attention will be paid to how much the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River impacts the plankton growth from season to season.

The marine environment is extremely complex so even small changes can have profound effects, putting the myriad pieces together requires highly intricate computer simulations to unravel how the whole system fits and functions. In a third scientific partnership with KIOST, PML scientists will be using mode ls first developed for use in Europe to analyse Korean seas and how they vary from season to season and year to year. From a Korean point of view this exercise will provide new levels of understanding of their coastal waters, while PML gains an opportunity to further refine and adapt its world-class mode ls.

These jointly funded projects have cemented the PML-KIOST relationship established in 2011 and auger well for a very fertile and exciting partnership between two of the world’s most highly respected marine research institutes, as PML Director of Science, Professor Manuel Barange says:

“The relationship between KIOST and PML has created a hub of scientific excellence combining the strengths of two major institutions in Asia and Europe. This research contract will provide opportunities for collaborative work in three areas: ocean remote sensing, marine ecosystem mode lling and marine nano-plastic pollution. I am particularly excited at the prospect of jointly exploring how to isolate nano-plastics in the marine environment, and assess their potential environmental impacts. We know that plastic pollution is a huge and global problem, but we do not know the particular effects of nano-plastics, which are increasingly and regularly released into waste waters”.

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