Rome, Italy.- This technical paper will contribute to take stock of the scientific knowledge available on microplastics in fisheries and aquaculture. It will provide information on the most likely pathways in terms of sources, transport and distribution in both marine food chains and seafood value chains and will provide a framework to assess the risks that may (or not) affect commercial fish stocks and consumers, as well as review current practices and limitations of microplastic sampling techniques.
Plastic production has increased exponentially since the early 1950s and reached 322 million tonnes in 2015, this figure does not include synthetic fibres which accounted for an additional 61 million tonnes in 2015. It is expected that production of plastics will continue to increase in the foreseeable future and production levels are likely to double by 2025. Inadequate management of plastic waste has led to increased contamination of freshwater, estuarine and marine environments. It has been estimated that in 2010 between 4.8 million to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic waste entered the oceans.
Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gears (ALDFG) are considered the main source of plastic waste by the fisheries and aquaculture sectors, but their relative contribution is not well known at regional and global levels.
Microplastics are usually defined as plastic items which measure less than 5 mm in their longest dimension, this definition includes also nanoplastics which are particles less than 100 nanometres (nm) in their longest dimension. Plastic items may be manufactured within this size range (primary micro- and nanoplastics) or result from the degradation and fragmentation of larger plastic items (secondary micro- and nanoplastics). Microplastics may enter aquatic environments through different pathways and they have been reported in all environmental matrices (beaches, sediments, surface waters and water column).
Ingestion of microplastics by aquatic organisms, including species of commercial importance for fisheries and aquaculture, has been documented in laboratory and field studies. In certain field studies it has been possible to source ingested microplastics to fisheries and aquaculture activities.
Microplastics contain a mixture of chemicals added during manufacture, the so-called additives, and efficiently sorb (adsorb or absorb) persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic contaminants (PBTs) from the environment. The ingestion of microplastics by aquatic organisms and the accumulation of PBTs have been central to the perceived hazard and risk of microplastics in the marine environment.
Adverse effects of microplastics ingestion have only been observed in aquatic organisms under laboratory conditions, usually at very high exposure concentrations that exceed present environmental concentrations by several orders of magnitude. In wild aquatic organisms microplastics have only been observed within the gastrointestinal tract, usually in small numbers, and at present there is no evidence that microplastics ingestion has negative effects on populations of wild and farmed aquatic organisms.
In humans the risk of microplastic ingestion is reduced by the removal of the gastrointestinal tract in most species of seafood consumed. However, most species of bivalves and several species of small fish are consumed whole, which may lead to microplastic exposure. A worst case estimate of exposure to microplastics after consumption of a portion of mussels (225 g) would lead to ingestion of 7 micrograms (µg) of plastic, which would have a negligible effect (less than 0.1 percent of total dietary intake) on chemical exposure to certain PBTs and plastic additives.
Microplastic contamination of aquatic environments will continue to increase in the foreseeable future and at present there are significant knowledge gaps on the occurrence in aquatic environments and organisms of the smaller sized microplastics (less than 150 µm), and their possible effects on seafood safety. Currently there are no methods available for the observation and quantification of nanoplastics in aquatic environments and organisms.
Lusher, A.L.; Hollman, P.C.H.; Mendoza-Hill, J.J. 2017. Microplastics in fisheries and aquaculture: status of knowledge on their occurrence and implications for aquatic organisms and food safety. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper. No. 615. Rome, Italy. 147 p.