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Dr Jo: The Great Winter Nurdle Hunt

March 8, 2017 0 Comments

On a wintry weekend in February, the Great Nurdle Hunt took place. Up and down the country volunteers were hunting beaches for little plastic pellets.

Some friends and I took part in this hunt at a small beach near Trelissick Gardens, Truro, Cornwall. This beach is on the river Fal but is tidal and is home to familiar marine life such as  seaweed and shellfish and we heard the distinctive call of oystercatchers.

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At such a sheltered location I wasn’t sure we’d find any plastic rubbish. A storm had blown through a couple of days previously though, causing rough conditions and potentially increasing debris on beaches.

My friends had not seen a nurdle before. I described them as little plastic pellets about the size of a lentil and it didn’t take us long to spot a couple hiding in the seaweed on the strandline. After an hour, between four of us, we found over 100. We actually found it quite addictive!

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Nurdles are melted down and used to manufacture everyday plastic products. They end up in the sea from spillages by cargo ships or dumps from factories and can remain in the sea for years or even decades. Eventually they’ll break down into smaller and smaller pieces to become microplastics.

The pellets can be mistaken for food by fish and birds, causing their stomachs to fill up, without providing the nutrients they need. In Tasmania, scientists investigated the stomach contents of seabirds confiscated from poachers. Over 30% of the plastic found in their stomachs were nurdles [1]. They can also accumulate in the stomachs of larger predators if they eat prey full of plastic [2].

The Great Nurdle Hunt was a fact-finding mission. Once I was home, I submitted my report of how many we’d found and how long we hunted for. This joined reports from all around the country, and as far away as Australia, providing information on the scale of the problem.

A map displays where nurdles have been hunted and where they’ve been found.

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The results showed that nurdles were found on 73% of beaches that were searched that weekend. I was shocked that we found so many on our sheltered beach. I was also shocked to hear that there are currently no management measures for nurdles in the UK. Fidra, who organised the Hunt, are asking the UK government to put policies in place to prevent further spillages.

Next time you’re at the beach, why not take a look at the strandline and see if you can spot them? The official advice is to wear gloves or use tweezers as they can be covered in toxins. I’d recommend the use of a good stick to look amongst the seaweed and sand. I’ve found many different colours including blue and purple but grey and black are most common. They can also vary slightly in size. Then, don’t forget to report your hunt!

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References

[1] Cousin, H.R., Auman, H.J., Alderman, R., Virtue, P., 2015. The frequency of ingested plastic debris and its effects on body condition of Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) pre-fledging chicks in Tasmania, Australia. Emu 115, 6-11.
[2] Romeo, T., Pietro, B., Peda, C., Consoli, P., Andaloro, F. & Fossi, M.C. 2015 First evidence of presence of plastic debris in stomach of large pelagic fish in the Mediterranean Sea. Marine Pollution Bulletin 95, 358-361.

Dr Jo Garrett has a background and degree in marine biology and completed a PhD from the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus, Cornwall in 2016. She studied the contributions of a marine renewable energy device and shipping on the underwater noise in Falmouth Bay, UK. She lives in Falmouth, Cornwall and is a keen climber and cider drinker.

You can read her previous post on The Enjoyable Rut here: Responsible Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

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