Assessment of Plastic Marine Debris Export Mechanisms and Risk to Sea Scallop Fisheries of the Mid-Atlantic Bight
Buckets full of scallops.
A sample of sea scallops (Placopecten megellanicus) collected as part of regular dredge surveys to determine the distribution and relative abundance of this managed species. (Photo Credit: NEFSC/NOAA)

Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are conducting fieldwork and laboratory experiments to provide the essential data needed to calculate the risk of microplastic ingestion to scallop stock populations.

Type of Project: Research

Region: Mid-Atlantic, Northeast

Project Dates: August 2017 – July 2019

Who is involved?
Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionRoyal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research, and Florida Atlantic University, with support from a NOAA Marine Debris Program Research grant, are exploring the biofilm community living on microplastics, the availability of microplastics for ingestion by sea scallops, and the effects of microplastic ingestion on larval and adult sea scallops in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and Georges Bank.

What is the project and why is it important?
Plastic is one of the most common types of marine debris. It is estimated that an average of 8 million metric tons of plastic products escape the waste stream and enter the world’s ocean each year, posing a significant, albeit poorly-characterized, risk to many marine organisms– and ultimately to humans. Recent research has focused on the effects of microplastic ingestion on individual organisms, however, understanding the risk to populations, species, and communities is in its infancy. This study is focusing on an ecological risk assessment to populations of the sea scallop, Placopecten megellanicus, in the Mid-Atlantic Bight and Georges Bank, which represents one of the most highly-valued commercial fisheries in the continental United States.

Through this project, fieldwork and laboratory experiments are providing the essential data needed to calculate the risk of microplastic ingestion to scallop stock populations. These experiments focus on the movement of microplastics from the sea surface to the seafloor, and specifically investigate the role that seasonal microalgae blooms play in the increase of microplastic (333 micron to 5 millimeters in size) and nanoplastic (size less than 333 micron) particles, forcing this debris to sink and become available for ingestion by sea scallops. Gut contents of scallops collected since 2013 as part of the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s annual sea scallop survey are being analyzed for microplastics in order to assess the amount of microplastics ingested and maintained in the body of scallops in a natural setting. In addition, lipid content in scallops is being analyzed to determine the risks associated with sea scallop larvae ingesting microplastics. Finally, micro- and nanoplastic particles are being coated with opportunistic pathogens (Vibrio spp.), to determine if microplastics help transfer pathogens to adult sea scallops.

Findings from this project are advancing our knowledge of a phenomenon that we now know is happening: sea scallop populations are ingesting microplastics. This study provides prioritized data for resource managers and policy makers to preserve this fishery and take corrective actions for future improvement. Data from these experiments is being incorporated into an ecological risk assessment by determining the marine debris impacts on larval and adult sea scallops.