By Tiffany Woods
Funded by Oregon Sea Grant, researchers at Portland State University are inspecting the guts and tissues of razor clams and oysters along the Oregon coast for microplastics, which can come from foams, tiny beads in facial creams, synthetic fibers from clothing, and disintegrating plastic bags.
“Our goal is to figure out if we have them in our oysters and clams, and if so, are they at problematic levels?” said Britta Baechler, a PSU master's student who is conducting the research under the guidance of PSU marine ecologist Elise Granek.
Oysters and clams, Baechler explained in a four-minute video that Oregon Sea Grant produced about the project, are indiscriminate filter feeders. As a result, they may ingest a piece of plastic and not be able to get rid of it, she said. Microplastics, which are defined as less than 5 mm, are of concern because they can attract chemicals, which might harm the organisms that eat them.
With help from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Baechler dug up razor clams at nine sites along the Oregon coast and bought oysters at five locations to see if there are areas where microplastics are more prevalent. She collected the shellfish in the spring of 2017 and again this summer to see if microplastics are more common during certain times of the year.
Once the oysters and clams were gathered, they were taken to Granek’s lab at PSU where they were measured, weighed, shucked and frozen so they could later be dissolved in potassium hydroxide. This process leaves a clear liquid that contains only sand and any plastics that may be present. The researchers have been analyzing the liquefied remains under a microscope and have found microplastics in some of the samples but they still have more to analyze. Granek hopes to have final results in the spring of 2018.
“Ultimately, we're hoping that this study brings awareness to Oregonians and even visitors to the state of Oregon that plastics that we use in our daily lives make their way into the environment,” Baechler said in the video. “We're also hoping that our partners, like Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and other state agencies, might take this information to learn about hot spots for microplastics to address the problem.”
Photos of the research can be downloaded from this album on Oregon Sea Grant’s Flickr page.