The research is pioneering of its kind, given that for the first time the levels of microplastics in the sea, in sediments and in microorganisms were estimated.

A recent publication in the prestigious scientific journal Science of The Total Environment showed that 60% of the microplastic found in the Chilean Patagonian fjords corresponds to polyester fibers from human activities, which would be arriving through ocean currents.

The research is led by Dr. Lara Marcus, researcher at the Faculty of Medicine and Science of the San Sebastián University (USS) of Puerto Montt and had the collaboration of the Center for Dynamic Research of High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Austral University of Chile (UACh,) the University of Concepción (UdeC) and the Fisheries Development Institute (IFOP.)

The samples were extracted within the framework of the PROFAN campaign of the IDEAL Center, which covered the system of fjords and channels adjacent to the Southern Ice Field, from the Messier channel to Madre de Dios island.

“I joined the group with the aim of investigating the abundance, occurrence and composition of microplastic pollution in the fjords. What we did was taking samples of surface water, seabed sediments up to 500 meters, beaches and also zooplankton, because we wanted to see if microplastics were already within the food chain. So what we did was analyze the larvae of the Munidas gregaria, a crustacean that serves as food for whales and is, therefore, a key species in these Patagonian ecosystems,” she explains.

The scientist reveals that microplastic was found in all the sampled matrices. “What caught our attention, on the one hand, was the abundance we found on the beaches. Normally beaches and sediment are environments that accumulate plastic over time. There the abundances were comparable to other high latitude beaches in the northern hemisphere where there is much more population, such as the Baltic Sea. So this was a bit alarming,” she says.

The academic adds that “the great result of this study was the type of polymer or microplastic that we found because although on the surface we found microplastics that we can associate with what are, for example, containers, plastic bottles and fishing materials, these were very minimal. El gran tipo de microplástico que encontramos fue el poliéster. Y el poliéster se asocia al agua que proviene de nuestras casas, sobre todo de nuestras lavadoras. Por lo tanto, lo que nos hizo pensar esto, como allí no hay pueblos ni actividad humana, es que estos microplásticos provenían de afuera, que ingresaban a través de las corrientes marinas”.

Future Research

Among the conclusions of this study, the researcher also highlights the presence of microplastic in zooplankton. “It means that it is already in the food chain and surely already impacting the fauna,” she explains, adding that “plastics have highly toxic chemicals and these toxins are released from the plastics and are absorbed by organisms and by us. This is another line of research that we are also developing and is gaining momentum at a scientific level.”

Likewise, Dr. Lara Marcus reports on new studies in the context of the climate crisis. “Another aspect that we detected as scientists is that if we had concern about microplastics, now we are seeing that there is contamination, even more, derived from nanoplastics. This is still much smaller than microplastics. Therefore, it is much more difficult to investigate because it is much more difficult to isolate it from the water and also to prevent it from reaching the sea or any environment. At the level of politics, management and research we still have a lot to do,” she comments.

“This is a pioneering study in the Patagonia marine system, since it quantifies the amount of microplastics and decomposes them into their different particle sizes, their concentration and their origin,” concludes Dr. José Luis Iriarte, co-author of the study and researcher at the IDEAL Center.

The study can be found in the following link.