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Study Finds Fish Are Obsessed with Eating Plastic Even Though It's Killing Them

Fish can't get enough of microplastics. In fact, they seem to prefer them to their traditional foods, such as plankton, the researchers say.

by Alex Swerdloff
Jun 5 2016, 5:00pm

In our youth, we all learned the lesson of the Little Mermaid—that there's no greater indignity in the ocean than one sea creature feasting upon the supple flesh of another sea creature. Then we grew up to find that lesson obviously untrue: Fish eat fish all the time. At least until now.

It turns out that the fish of 2016 are instead noshing on plastics. And they really, really like it.

A new study released in the journal Science has found that massive amounts of fish are dying from increased ingestion of microplastic particles. This unsettling problem is compounded by a simple fact: Fish can't get enough of microplastics. In fact, they seem to prefer them to their traditional foods, such as plankton, the researchers say.

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According to the study, as a result of their newfound diet the fish are stunting their own growth, altering their innate behavior, and significantly increasing their mortality rates.

The piscine affection for plastics could make for seriously disastrous results, considering just how much plastic is currently found in the world's oceans. A joint university study published last year found that roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into our oceans each year. Hell, a report presented earlier this year at the World Economic Forum says that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

It seems that fish like plastics the way teenagers like fast food. One co-author of the most recent study, Professor Peter Eklov, says, "This is the first time an animal has been found to preferentially feed on plastic particles and is cause for concern." What's more, fish who are ingesting a lot of plastic seem to lose their ability to smell predators.

While the researchers focused largely on perch and their larvae, Oona Lönnstedt, the study's other co-author, emphasized that that the issue plagues the entirety of the oceanic food chain. She says, "If early life-history stages of other species are similarly affected by microplastics, and this translates to increased mortality rates, the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound."

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For those who may not know, microplastics come from larger pieces of plastic waste that have broken down in the environment. Pieces smaller than 5 millimeters are called microplastics. The term also includes microbeads, or little balls of plastic found in soaps, cosmetics, and toothpastes. The US government recently outlawed microbeads, but many other countries, including the UK, have no such ban in place.

If left unchecked, the spread of microplastics in our ocean will almost certainly have a devastating effect. Until then, we'll have the delightful bonus of knowing that our seafood is chock-full of delicious plastic of our own making.