Plastic debris contamination in the Acoupa weakfish (Cynoscion acoupa) in a tropical estuary

By Elana Rusnak, SRC intern

The Acoupa weakfish (Cynoscion acoupa) is an economically important fish that lives along the tropical east coast of the American continents. They tend to live in estuary systems—calm, brackish water habitats—as juveniles and sub-adults, and then move to saltier areas as they age. Tropical estuaries are one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, and they provide shelter, food, and developmental grounds for many species of fishes and invertebrates. Unfortunately, since estuaries are more sheltered environments, plastic debris tends to accumulate and be ingested by the many species that make the estuary their home.   A study by Ferreira et al. in 2016 explored the feeding habits of all life stages of the Acoupa weakfish in the Goiana Estuary in Brazil, and described the plastic debris contamination of the area and how it affects these economically important fish.

In this study, the fish were subdivided into three study groups: juvenile, sub-adult, and adult. They were observed and captured in the upper, middle, and lower parts of the Goiana Estuary, with the lower part being the saltiest. About 470 juveniles, 25 sub-adults, and 33 adults were used in this study. The stomach contents of each fish were removed and examined to determine the ratio of plastic debris to their natural diet (fish, crustaceans, worms, seaweed, plant fragments). The researchers found that in almost every fish, the majority of the stomach contents consisted of plastic debris, followed by crustaceans and fish (64.4% of juveniles, 50% of sub-adults, and 100% of adults were contaminated with plastic). Multicolored plastics were also found in the digestive tract, and a few specimens had nothing in the stomach other than plastic debris.

Plastic debris inside a penaeid shrimp, a primary food source for adult Acoupa weakfish (Ferreira et al., 2016)

Plastic debris inside a penaeid shrimp, a primary food source for adult Acoupa weakfish (Ferreira et al., 2016)


Zoomed in image of red plastic debris inside the digestive tract of an Acoupa weakfish specimen (Ferreira et al., 2016)

Zoomed in image of red plastic debris inside the digestive tract of an Acoupa weakfish specimen (Ferreira et al., 2016)


So what does this all mean?

First, the Goiana Estuary waters are polluted with plastic debris at densities comparable to half the density of the fish larvae that reside in it (Lima et al., 2015). This indicates that this estuary system is very polluted. Moreover, the Acoupa weakfish isn’t the only organism ingesting all this plastic. The direct ingestion of plastic debris might primarily occur during the early stages of the Acoupa weakfish, whereas sub-adults and adults ingest debris through the trophic food chain (their prey ingests the plastic, then it is left behind in the adult fish’s stomach). This occurs through a process called biotransferrence. The presence of plastic in the digestive system is also problematic, as it can lead to digestive injuries and induce starvation. Since the Acoupa weakfish is a top predator in their estuarine habitat, they are more susceptible to food web disturbances.

This fish is not only a primary food source for the locals in the area, but it is also commercially fished. If they are filled with plastic, they are not getting the nutrition they need to become large, healthy fish. Without this growth, both the locals and the commercial industry will suffer. This study really showed the large-scale change that needs to begin now with regards to reducing plastic waste and keeping our environment clean and healthy.

Works cited

Ferreira, G.V.B., Barletta, M., Lima, A.R.A., Dantas, D.V., Justino, A.D.S., Costa, M.F. 2016. Plastic debris contamination in the ife cycle of Acoupa weakfish (Cynoscion acoupa) in a tropical estuary. ICES Journal of Marine Science 73: 2695-2707.

Lima, A. R. A., Barletta, M., and Costa, M. F. 2015. Seasonal distribu- tion and interactions between plankton and microplastics in a tropical estuary. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, 161: 93–107.

Percentage of Seabird Species Ingesting Plastic Expected to Reach 99 Percent by 2050

By Laura Vander Meiden, SRC Intern

A recent study has found that if current rates of plastic introduction into the ocean continue, by 2050 approximately 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic. The study, published in September of 2015, uses a computer model based upon an analysis of data provided by past plastic-ingestion studies to come to these conclusions.

Unaltered remains of an albatross chick at Midway Atoll. Photo by Chris Jordan of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unaltered remains of an albatross chick at Midway Atoll. Photo by Chris Jordan of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Plastic debris harms seabirds and other marine organisms through both entanglement and consumption. Entangled birds can lose motor abilities reducing their ability to feed and fly. Consumption of plastic can lead to pieces accumulating in the digestive system, taking up gut space typically available for food. This negatively impacts an individual’s body condition and severely reduces its ability to care for itself. In some cases, the plastic completely blocks the digestive system, leading to death. Additionally, plastics in the ocean absorb harmful chemicals that can leach out and cause damage to a seabird’s internal organs. Since approximately half of all sea bird species are in decline, these deleterious effects of plastic debris on seabirds are very concerning.

An analysis of data published in studies from 1962 to 2012 shows that 59 percent of the seabird species studied had been found to ingest plastic. Likewise, researchers found that 29 percent of the individual birds sampled in each study contained plastic in their digestive systems. Trends in this data show an average increase of 1.7 percent a year in the proportion of individuals studied that had ingested plastic. To put this in perspective, if that trend continued and those studies were to be redone today, plastic would be found in over 90% of the individual birds sampled.

Using this data, researchers created a computer model to determine areas of risk for seabird species worldwide. The model included 186 species of sea birds. Surprisingly the location of highest estimated impact was not in the Pacific Ocean, home of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but at the boundary of the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Australia. Though concentrations of plastic debris here are lower than other sites, this area is home to a large number of seabird species that are prone to plastic ingestion. This increases the area’s risk above those of locations with higher plastic concentrations.

plastic figure 2

It is important to remember that seabirds are not the only marine organisms affected by plastic debris. An assessment conducted by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity found that in 2012, 663 species were affected by marine waste, with 80 percent of the impact coming from plastic marine waste. This is up 40 percent from a previous assessment completed in 1997. Half of all marine mammal species, every species of sea turtle, and one fifth of seabird species were reported to be affected. Fifteen percent of these species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning they are at risk of extinction. Species of highest concern include the Hawaiian monk seal, loggerhead sea turtle, and white-chinned petrel.

The seabird study states that ingestion rates rise with increased exposure to plastic. Therefore, if the introduction of plastic into the marine ecosystem was reduced, the study’s projection that by 2050, 99 percent of seabird species will be ingesting plastic could possibly be avoided. Unfortunately, the problem will only continue to get worse unless waste management practices improve and plastic production is reduced. Commercial plastic production first began in the 1950s, over 60 years ago. If current rates of production continue, during the next 11 years we will produce the same amount of plastic as has been created since plastic production first started. Because plastic doesn’t easily biodegrade, this will effectively double the amount of plastic found on Earth.

The United Nations proposed several actions to begin to alleviate this problem. The proposed actions include reduction in the use of plastic as a packaging material, increased producer responsibility, and improved consumer awareness. These solutions are in contrast to past proposals that have only focused on waste management. However in order for a serious impact to occur, change will likely have to take place at international, national and local levels.

Works Cited

Wilcox, C., Van Sebille, E., & Hardesty, B. D. (2015). Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(38), 11899-11904.

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—GEF (2012). Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions, Montreal, Technical Series No. 67.