Microplastics and synthetic microfibres from clothing have been found for the first time in the guts of sharks that live off the UK coast.
Scientists examined the stomachs and intestines of 46 seabed-dwelling sharks that had been caught as bycatch by Penzance-based hake fishing trawlers.
They found that 67% of the sharks examined contained microplastics or other manmade fibres commonly found in textiles. A total of 379 particles were found.
Kristian Parton, of the University of Exeter and lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, said the findings highlighted “the ubiquitous nature of plastic pollution”.
“We were shocked that the overwhelming majority (95%) of contaminants identified were microfibres from fishing lines and nets for example, or synthetic cellulose that’s used to make viscose, rayon and disposable facemasks,” he said. “Having this baseline is so important to see how this changes over time for UK shark species and for future comparisons globally.”
Microfibres reach the sea in a multitude of ways including the breakdown of large plastic pieces, fibres shed from car tyres or the washing of synthetic fabrics.
“Once these tiny fragments flow into our rivers and consequently our oceans, some float on the surface or within the water column while others sink to the seabed where these sharks live,” Parton said. “Fibres could be ingested when the sharks eat shore crabs or squat lobsters or directly through the sediment on the seabed, as they’re suction feeders.”
The impact of plastic pollution on sharks is understudied, Parton said. “Most research has focused on whales, turtles, dolphins and seals up until now. This study helps build a clearer picture of how plastic pollution affects sharks, but also raises further questions: if microplastics affect the flesh of these sharks, humans could ultimately consume these fibres.”
Dr Laura Foster, head of clean seas at the Marine Conservation Society, said: “This new research is another reminder that plastic pollution directly affects marine life in UK oceans. Tiny microfibres are less visible than a plastic bottle but we need to make more of a connection between the sea and what we do in our everyday lives, including the clothes we wear and put in the wash. It all becomes part of a soup of ocean plastic.”