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CANADIAN MARINE BIOLOGIST INSPIRES STUDENTS
TO TACKLE THE PLASTIC POLLUTION CRISIS
By Suzanne Forcese
As a recipient of the National Geographic Explorer Grant in 2014 Justine Ammendolia was just 22 when she landed by helicopter on an uninhabited remote northern shore in Greenland to study the feeding habits of the Auk, a species of Arctic seabirds. It was an experience that would shape her destiny and highlight her intended career path as a plastics pollution researcher and science communicator.
WaterToday had the pleasure of speaking at length with Ammendolia from her base in Newfoundland where she and other Memorial University researchers (led by Dr. Charles Mather, and including Jess Melvin, Madeline Bury and Dr. Max Liboiran) of the Placentia Bay Ocean Debris Survey Team are studying the plastic landscapes of coastlines in the province through monitoring marine debris in fish, sediments, surface waters and shorelines.
Growing up in Toronto, her dream of being a marine biologist never wavered from the time she was 7 years old and experienced underwater marine life, the ocean and the beach for the first time on a Florida family vacation. But it was Greenland that made the dream a reality.
“The trip to Greenland was full of logistical challenges,” Ammendolia told WT. Completely off the grid, for 6 weeks she shared a one room cabin with 3 other researchers, a lonely toilet exposed on a secluded beach and an eye always open to lurking polar bears. “It made me feel how really small we humans are and how we are at the mercy of the environment. But it put things into perspective, especially in relationship to water.” Not only did the team have to melt glacial ice for drinking water but they were witness to the widespread effects of contamination. “Such a beautiful place but the wildlife was suffering.”
Ammendolia’s Auk research study in Greenland included catching the birds and fitting them with tiny back-pack style electronic trackers. According to plan the birds would go about business as usual and when they returned she would be able to analyse their feeding habits and locations from the data recorded on the trackers. Except…the birds ditched their gear in the ocean.
It was beyond a disappointing challenge but in hindsight it was perhaps the happy accident that honed Ammendolia’s scientific focus. Attempting a little damage control she resorted to a new plan. While holding the birds over her notebook she would wait for them to relieve themselves and then scoop up the excrement into vials which she then transported back to the lab in Canada. To her dismay, analysis of the fecal matter revealed plastic debris. However, it was the epiphanous moment leading her to develop a project that people could understand -- something that would be a teaching experience for behavioral change.
Seeing plastic debris on the remote, uninhabited, and pristine beaches of Greenland became the impetus to teach that “we have to stop this. Like climate change, plastic pollution has to be addressed. And quickly. We don’t have time to waste. We have to shut off the tap instead of mopping the floor.”
“Plastic debris is pervasive. It has made its way everywhere, into our drinking water, our food, the ocean floor and it is killing wildlife.” Ammendolia describes the 5 gyres or ocean currents that run in circles somewhat like a tornado. Plastic has accumulated in the gyres. “Most people are familiar with the ‘Pacific garbage patch’ which has really transformed into a toxic soup.” All 5 gyres are swirling with toxic plastic sludge. “There is even a gyre just below Newfoundland, a little closer to Nova Scotia.”
Now with her team, Ammendolia is building ‘plastic profiles’ for each of the 7 Newfoundland beaches. The research team goes out daily in all weather “which is quite different from most researchers who tend to work on warm sunny beaches to collect their data.”
It is of interest to note that each beach has a different personality, perhaps dependent on the surrounding communities and the ocean currents. While one beach may have mostly Styrofoam, another may collect hard plastics such as Rubbermaid containers and tires. But the collection includes water bottles, plastic bags, straws, ribbons, fishing lines and nets, balloons, toys and strangely enough -- artificial plants. “There are not a lot of people in Newfoundland but there is a lot of plastic pollution. Plastics move across boundaries.”
Plastic pollution is a major global concern because it devastates all levels of marine ecosystems. Marine plastics can adsorb harmful industrial chemicals which enter the food web and end up in our bodies. Despite the widespread harm, Canada does not have a national monitoring system and our knowledge of source points is lacking.
The team will track this pervasive pollution to discover the point sources and also to determine human activity. “We have to do an audit and stop the unnecessary production of plastics, especially the single use. While it is unreasonable, at this time, to expect all plastics to be eliminated – they are used in medical equipment and aircraft for example – cutting back on the unnecessary plastic production can offset the numbers.”
Ammendolia admits there are a lot of companies making a lot of money from the plastic industry. “We need to see them taking responsibility. But each and every one of us can do our part too.” For her part, she is making the message loud and clear. “We are living a science experiment, we didn’t sign up for this, but we need
to clean up the mess. We can take inspiration from Nature with biomaterials. We can take individual action and influence our families, our friends and put pressure on our governments.”
An avid science communicator, Ammendolia is regularly invited to give external presentations about her travels and scientific adventures. As a National Geographic Young Explorer, she has collaborated with the society through delivering lectures and has written educational material based on her research. She also delivers virtual class presentations with “Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants”, a not for profit that brings science exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms.
“Kids really get it right away. I want to give them the resources that previous generations did not have. That is another of my passions – to be a role model to these kids. Science needs more of that.”
Where will the next leg of the journey take Justine Ammendolia? “I want to finish my PhD, become a University professor. The integrity of the oceans is my life and plastic pollution is such an exciting field because it is so new and there is such openness with other scientists to work together on this issue.”
And this issue needs our scientists and science communicators to lead us to solutions.
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