Microplastic pollution in estuaries across a gradient of human impact

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Abstract

Microplastic (MP) pollution is an emerging issue in aquatic sciences. Little comparative information currently exists about the problem in coastal systems exposed to different levels of human impact. Here we report a year-long study on the abundance of MP in the water column of three estuaries on the east-coast of Australia. The estuaries are subject to different scales of human impact; the Clyde estuary has little human modification, the Bega estuary has a small township and single wastewater treatment works discharging to its waters, and the Hunter estuary which has multiple townships, multiple wastewater treatment plants, and heavy industry. MP abundance followed an expected pattern with the lowest abundance in the low-impact Clyde estuary (98 part. m3), moderate levels of MP in the moderately impacted Bega estuary (246 part. m3), and high MP abundance in the highly impacted Hunter estuary (1032 part. m3). The majority of particles were <200 μm and fragment-like rather than fiber-like. MP abundance was positively related to maximum antecedent rainfall in the Bega estuary, however there are no clear environmental factors that could explain MP variation in the other systems. MP were generally higher in summer and following freshwater inflow events. On the Hunter estuary MP abundance was at times as high as zooplankton abundance, and within the range of numbers reported in other highly impacted systems globally. The results confirm that higher levels of human impact lead to greater plastic pollution and highlight the need to examine aquatic ecosystems under a range of conditions in order to adequately characterize the extent of MP pollution in rivers and coastal systems.

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Hitchcock, J. N., & Mitrovic, S. M. (2019). Microplastic pollution in estuaries across a gradient of human impact. Environmental Pollution, 247, 457–466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2019.01.069

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