Microplastics research project kicks off in Wānaka

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WAI Wānaka has initiated research into microplastics in local freshwater environments following funding success from The Otago Participatory Science Platform, Curious Minds, Ten Square Games and PlanetPlay.

Introducing Veronica Rotman

Marine scientist and PhD student Veronica Rotman will be driving the research for this project as a part of her doctorate at the University of Auckland, and members of the WAI Wānaka team and local volunteers will be assisting with sampling.

Veronica Rotman is also a science communicator with a background in microplastics research. She sits on the Sustainable Seas National Science Challenge Stakeholder Panel and tutors and lectures at tertiary institutions in New Zealand. Veronica set up and delivered a tertiary education programme in remote Kaitaia, teaching sustainable aquaculture and marine science to representatives of the Muriwhenua. Some of her prior research investigated whether one of our most commercially valuable fish species, hoki, is consuming plastic in the wild and what effects plastic ingestion has on the physiology of NZ’s beloved snapper.

Veronica looking closely at a jar of sediment

Veronica out on Lake Wānaka collecting water and sediment samples for microplastics research project ‘A Teeny Tiny Truth‘.

Veronica’s PhD project is titled: Ki uta ki tai (mountains to sea): plastics in Southern Aotearoa. It investigates sources of pollution, how it is distributed, and potential threats to culturally significant taonga species from the mountains of Wānaka to the ocean and offshore islands of southern Te Waipounamu. She passionately loves the great outdoors, freediving, ski touring, and exploring.

What are Microplastics?

Microplastics are a pervasive pollutant found from the top of the world on Mount Everest, to the Mariana trench at the bottom of the world, 11,034m below the surface. Increasing accumulation in aquatic ecosystems can result in more encounters with animals, and it is important to understand the effect that may have on culturally significant and taonga species. Studies have suggested a myriad of chemical and physiological effects following ingestion, including degradation of the intestine, reduced absorption of nutrients and reduced growth.

In Aotearoa, microplastics could be degrading the mauri (lifeforce) and wairua (spirit) of the freshwater and coastal environment. It is important to understand their prevalence, spatial distribution and impact in our freshwater environment, identify key sources and sinks of pollution and mitigate these through innovation, education and policy change.

Existing studies on microplastics incidence in freshwater lakes and rivers in Aotearoa are limited, with the majority of emphasis placed on ocean research. Beyond their immense cultural and environmental value, the freshwater from our lakes and river are a primary source of human drinking water, and rivers are a significant pathway for plastics to enter the ocean.

The aims of the study:

  1. What is the spatial distribution of microplastics in the surface waters of Lake Wānaka? How does this relate to potential sources and transport mechanisms?
  2. What is the most effective method to identify microplastics in surface waters?
  3. Is ingestion of microplastics by freshwater predatory organisms related to their abundance in the surrounding environment?
  4. Where are possible sources of microplastics in Lake Wānaka? Identified through analysis of chemical polymer, morphotype and colour.

Veronica’s overall PhD research is based on the concept of ki uta ki tai (mountains to sea), looking at the incidence and spatial distribution of microplastics in southern Aotearoa from the mountains to the sea, in snow, water, fish and other organisms.

For more information please contact: veronicarotman@gmail.com

For ongoing updates on the project, click on the link below.

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