An Interview With: Microplastics Student Devina Shetty
Hi Devina! Can you tell us who you are and what you do in the plastics research space (i.e. what you are studying and at what academic level)?
I am a Research Masters Student at the Institute of Marine Science, University of Auckland. For my Master’s thesis I am looking at plastic ingestion by fish in New Zealand waters. My research will also look at plastic contamination at the sea surface and seafloor in Auckland's Hauraki Gulf.
How did you get involved with marine plastics research?
Initially, I was very keen on doing my Masters with marine mammals and secured an internship with Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari to get some experience with cetacean behaviour and associated ecology but I was very open to studying other issues currently stressing our environment too.
Studies on marine plastic pollution have been gaining traction for the last 5 years but very little study has actually been done on the subject in the South Pacific and in New Zealand. When I was offered to do this project by my supervisor I decide to jump at the chance.
New Zealand is a blank slate when it comes to research on microplastic ingestion by fish, so this research will provide many positive outcomes including a baseline for future research on microplastic pollution in our waters, impart support for marine debris data gathering and also help to educate current and future civil society on sustainable practices.
What interests you about plastics research?
It is becoming increasingly common knowledge that plastics are mistaken for food by marine wildlife including fish. This has many negative impacts such as intestinal blockages, abrasions, ulcers, a false sense of satiation (feeling full) which results in stunted growth, starvation and loss of body condition.
Some studies show that mussels that eat plastic have decreased energy reserves, coral reefs may have an increased likelihood of disease outbreak and that toxins build up in fish tissue which then travels up the food chain as the fish get eaten. They can interfere with an animal's natural behaviour such as their feeding preferences and predatory avoidance hence affect their population dynamics – so these physiological, sublethal effects need to be studied further and are very interesting to me.
What does your average day involve (in terms of being a student/researcher)?
Every day varies – some days I’m out in the field trying to convince recreational fishermen to handover fish guts from their most recent catches (I try not to buy whole fish as it will most likely be wasted).
If I'm not in the field, then I’m in the laboratory digesting fish tissue in chemicals to isolate plastic particles (if there are any!). Otherwise, I’m at my desk trying to work out the next steps in my research, get things organized and meeting deadlines because in the field of research you need Plan A, B, C and D!
Where I have time I also volunteer with citizen science projects such as beach sediment sampling which helps build on my existing knowledge and skills.
Volunteering my spare time with microplastic beach sediment sampling
What work will you be doing onboard the Dolphin Explorer?
I’ll also soon be conducting more fieldwork to obtain samples of the seafloor as well as sea surface waters onboard Auckland Whale & Dolphin Safari which I will then analyse for microplastics. I am excited to collect samples onboard the Dolphin Explorer as it will mean that passengers can see microplastics research in action and I, along with the crew, can continue to raise awareness of impacts of plastics on the ocean.
What is the most interesting thing you have found so far in your research?
Right now I’m still doing preliminary laboratory work so my results will only be published mid-2020. Last year, Ana Markic – a PhD student within the institute found that parore, a species of fish, had one of the highest rates of plastic ingestion in NZ so who knows what I will discover!
Anything else you can tell us from your research so far?
By looking at plastics in seafloor sediments, the water column and in fish, my research is taking a holistic approach which has not been done before. By doing this, it might help us determine plastics exposure to pelagic fish (fish feeding at upper surface waters) and demersal fish (fish feeding at ocean seafloor).
After all of that and if I have some time left, I will be keen to look at the movement of microplastics within the fish itself from the digestive system to edible fish tissue such as muscle and fatty tissues like the liver and brain. In-tank experiments suggest that nanoplastics (very small plastics) do move to the muscle and liver but not much research has been done on wild-caught fish that haven’t been deliberately fed plastic.
What is your most ‘favourite’ marine plastic fact?
Oh, I have a few!
- We’re already consuming microplastics - the average person eats 70,000 microplastics a year!
- It is estimated by some scientific models that by the year 2050, the amount of plastic in the oceans will outweigh the amount of fish (if we don’t take action now)
- Communities that depend on the ocean for their livelihood, either through fishing or tourism, are also negatively affected by plastic pollution due to the economic cost of ocean clean ups and lost or contaminated catch. This should be enough incentive to get our act together.
It is quite easy to associate marine plastics with negativity, is there any positivity you can draw from it?
It’s amazing to seeing people coming together to work towards solutions – beach cleanups, pressing for a ban on single-use plastic bags and creating alternatives to plastics by using other more environmentally-friendly materials. We can all collaborate together to find better ways to reduce consumption and disposal of plastic. Each one of us has a role to play in raising awareness on the staggering impact of plastic menace on our wildlife – and if we each do our part, collectively that would make a huge impact.
What do you hope for the future?
The government banned microbeads in 2017 and I’m hoping this gets extended to cotton buds and single-use plastics too. I would also like to see an increase in public awareness and the importance of getting the younger generation engaged – this could start in school through projects or volunteer work so that they understand the necessity of protecting our environment.
As it is Plastic Free July, what do you think are 3 easy things that everyone to do to change their reliance on plastic?
I tried to stop at 3 but couldn't help it!
A) Water bottles: You know what the best part about living in NZ is? Provision of clean drinking water. In most parts of the world, water is either scarce or contaminated and I come from a country where it’s unthinkable to drink water straight from the tap. I would have to boil water for 15mins before it was drinkable! So there is no reason for Kiwis to buy plastic water bottles, just bring your own water bottle and refill it at any place. A million plastic water bottles are bought every minute! What an enormous waste.
B) Cling film: We unnecessarily use cling film to wrap food or cover open containers. We can just use a lid or a plate to cover containers or a beeswax wrap. Aluminium foil is no better either as they take over 400 years to decompose.
C) Ditch disposable coffee cups: We are literally drowning ourselves in waste! So much so that we ship our waste overseas! In Aotearoa, we discard 295 million single-use cups a year! Compostable cups are gaining popularity in Aotearoa but only 1 in 400 cups actually get into a commercial composting system. Compostable coffee cups are good, but re-using is better!
D) Cigarette butts: If you are a smoker please make sure your cigarette buds go into a trash can, else they get into our drains and end up in our oceans!
Devina is regularly on board the Dolphin Explorer helping us collect our marine data and will be starting to collect her microplastics data in the coming months too so feel free to ask her any questions you may have about her studies!