Arctic plastics

Inuit researchers are on the lookout for migrating microplastics

Unknown in origin, foreign plastic particles are making their way to remote beaches in the Arctic, spurring new collaborative monitoring

There isn’t an ocean beach in the world that has been tested and not found to contain tiny plastic fibres, beads or other plastic fragments of the industrial world.

The Arctic beaches of Kugluktuk, Nunavut, nearly 2,000 km directly north of Calgary, are no exception. Researchers are now trying new methods to understand the source and scope of the problem.

“It was surprising how many tiny pieces of plastic were on the shoreline,” says researcher Rhiannon Moore, who studies microplastics in marine mammals through the Vancouver-based marine education and research organization Ocean Wise.

While any given sample of sand or water could tell the researchers how much plastic there was — and even what kind of object it may once have been a part of — it’s much harder to know where it came from.

“It was hard to know if it was local, or if it was being carried by ocean currents.”

About 8 million tons of plastic moves from land into the ocean each year. Plastics can end up in the ocean through all kinds of mechanisms, but rivers carrying garbage to the sea is thought to be the most prolific source of land-originating plastics. A quarter of that is thought to come from just ten rivers, eight of which are in Asia.

In June, Canada committed $100 million to the problem, part of which is earmarked for helping developing nations stem the tide of plastics bobbing down their rivers.

Fishing is also adding its fair share to the burden — a new paper found 46 per cent of the plastic swirling through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was at one point fishing gear.

This begs the question: with no severely polluted rivers draining into the Arctic Ocean, and not a great deal of commercial fishing either, how have Arctic beaches grown crowded with the plastic that plagues their southern counterparts?

Recent research has shown that sea ice acts as a floating platform for the transportation of microplastics, which could account for some of the pollution.

After hitching a ride on ocean currents, free floating or in sea ice, the plastics are ending up in the food chain — a study of Canadian northern fulmars by found 80 to 85 per cent of northern fulmars in the Arctic have plastic in their bodies.

“We can actually feel it often before we open up the stomach,” lead researcher Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral fellow at Acadia University told The Narwhal.

But regardless of its origin, the plastic is there nonetheless, in a sparsely populated corner of the Arctic.

“The issue is a global issue, and it is extending into the Arctic and across the world,” says Eric Solomon, Vancouver Aquarium’s director of Arctic programs. “That’s opening up big questions about the significance to wildlife as well as to people.”

Local knowledge and a global problem

Moore was in Kugluktuk in mid-July conducting a workshop with a small group of Inuit to introduce them to the techniques necessary to monitor the plastics collecting in their own territory.

The hope is that the monitoring will continue into the future, with the locals taking charge of carrying out the program. It could shed light on the spread and origin of the plastic pollution problem.

Rhiannon Moore assists Adrian Kudlak in removing a filter used to concentrate microplastics from a water sample taken in Kugluktuk, Nunavut.

Myles Aggark, a 23 year old from Kugluktuk, was among the participants, and intends to continue working with the researchers on future projects. He says he’s noticed an increase in the plastic pollution along the shore. “It’s growing a lot now,” he says. “All sorts of garbage and plastics and cigarette butts.”

Kugluktuk was a pilot for a larger project, and part of the Ikaarvik (“bridge” in Inuktitut) program, which connects southern researchers to northern communities for data collection and information sharing. Eventually, the idea is to expand the plastics monitoring program to other communities.

The aim is to “change the traditional way of researchers just coming into a community, taking something… and then the community might not hear from them again, or not in the right way,” says Moore.

It’s part of a larger approach taken by a growing number of researchers across the Arctic, including fish biologists, bird researchers, caribou researchers, and many others.

“There’s a long history of research coming into communities, researchers having set ideas about the questions they want to study,” says Solomon. “There is not as long a history of research working directly with communities, looking at addressing issues that are relevant locally.”

The benefits to the Ocean Wise researchers extend beyond the data collection; Moore says the visiting researchers gained valuable knowledge on sampling locations and other local factors from the Inuit “co-researchers,” as she describes the Inuit workshop participants.

“They have all these very important local perspectives and local knowledge that we don’t have,” says Moore. “We should continue having these relationships with communities, and we don’t want it to be a one-sided relationship.”

Likewise, for community members, the benefits exceed the actual research being done. Collaborative research programs are building capacity, and giving young people — people under 30 make up 60 per cent of the territory’s population — a chance to take leadership roles.

“Elders in the community really like to see the young people stepping up the way they are,” says Solomon.

Jimmy Thomson is a Yellowknife-based freelance journalist. He has worked as a CBC videojournalist and has bylines in the Globe…

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