When Michel Bariche cut open the giant Bluefin tuna he had caught, it was like breaking open a pinata.
“We found candy, chocolate and gum wrappers,” said the marine biologist, who fishes as a hobby, describing the plastic litter that spilled from the fish’s guts.
“No one has ever seen plastic in tuna [in Lebanon] as far as I know,” he said.
The Bluefin tuna is listed as an endangered species, however, the fish is considered a delicacy and is often used in sushi.
Bariche, who is a professor at the American University of Beirut, said although the discovery was “not scientific” as he happened to come across it on a fishing trip, he aims to raise awareness by sharing it on the Facebook page Lebanon Sea.
According to Bariche, there is no local research on the impact of plastic pollution in the sea on marine life, as experts in the field are scarce.
“I don’t have any record of plastic in fish. It could be that someone has seen it earlier, but it’s not something common.
“We’re used to seeing it in sea turtles, dolphins and whales, and recently in seabirds,” he said.
Sami Lakkis, marine sciences researcher and professor at the Lebanese University, agreed.
“Plastic is most often eaten by turtles, but it sometimes ends up in bigger fish by default,” Lakkis said, adding that there is no specific research on the topic in Lebanon.
While the absence of local research means there are no nationwide figures, the Mediterranean is estimated to have 1,000 to 3,000 tons of plastic floating on its surface, according to a 2015 study.
“Effects of plastic pollution on marine and human life are expected to be particularly frequent in this plastic accumulation region,” stated the study, titled “Plastic accumulation in the Mediterranean Sea” and published in the PLOS One journal, noting millimeter-sized fragments dominate most the debris.
“The debris floating on the water’s surface is photodegradable, it breaks down in the presence of light. They become microplastics but never disappear,” Bariche explained. “They have toxic molecules that end up in the body of the animal. Some plastic can, like the pieces that we found, potentially release toxic substances.”
While macroplastics can cause complications in a fish’s digestive system by forming blockages or entanglements – potentially deadly – they don’t usually pose a risk until broken down into microplastics.
“The plastic is only dangerous when it breaks down into molecules,” Lakkis said.
“Nobody likes to eat anything that has garbage in it,” said Manal Nader, director of the University of Balamand’s environment institute.
“What do we expect? We pollute our waters, we throw plastic everywhere and then we blame the fish, the fishermen and the market.”
Nader said the main cause of marine pollution is poor waste management: “The last bin of our garbage is the ocean. Regulations and management should be on land, because you need to treat it at the root.”
He described the issue of fish digesting plastics as “very common” globally but said Lebanon’s garbage crisis makes the problem worse.
Nader also agreed there was a lack of research on the effects of plastics on marine life, however, said it would be near impossible to measure, especially with macroplastics.
“It’s hard to measure the amount of plastic in water. You throw something here, and you might find it in Morocco,” he said.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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