When you hear the words ‘Plastic Pollution’, you would be forgiven if the first place that pops into your brain is the Ocean. The Lake District however, receives approximately 18 million tourists a year, bringing with them significant amount of waste. Though many people come to enjoy this area of natural beauty, few are aware of the potential threat that plastic pollution poses to this landscape. Sarah Roberts (Eco-journalist and Naturalist) and Marina Gibson (Professional Angler), recently journeyed on a fishing and wild camping adventure around Coniston, whilst discussing the potential impacts this form of pollution could have on their own back doorstep.
M: ‘I haven’t spent much time at this spot, but it’s absolutely beautiful!’
S: ‘Yeah we are pretty lucky! This is one of my favourite go-to spots to head out for a hike or to get on the water.’
M: ‘From here it doesn’t really look there could be anything wrong!’
S: ‘I know what you mean! I think it’s very easy to take it for granted, especially when we come to this place to escape our problems. With my work, I’ve seen human impacts in remote locations all over the world, so it’s hard not to notice pieces of plastic everywhere - especially once your eyes are programmed to it.’
M: ‘As an angler, I’d say I’m quite aware of threats to marine life as it can affect my industry directly. However admittedly, before I met you, I had only heard of microplastics feastering in the ocean. The daunting news that our river systems are also heavily contaminated is a terrifying thought and something that we should all be aware of - or am I the last to know?!’
S: ‘You are definitely not the last to know! There is a big lag in communication between the science world, the media and the general public. The reason we are hearing such a lot about plastic in the ocean now, is because there has been more published studies on this particular topic over the last 20 years. Research on plastic pollution in freshwater systems, air and soils, in comparison, is fairly limited right now. We do know however, that microplastics are found in all of these places and it potentially poses just as much of a threat to inland ecosystems as it does the the ocean.’
M: ‘I heard recently that one of the UK’s rivers has one of the highest level of plastic pollution in the world! How is it that our rivers have become so bad without us realising?’
S: ‘When you take dilution factor into account, oceans are huge in comparison to lakes and streams, so it is not all that surprising to hear that the concentration of microplastics in river beds could be much higher than that on beaches. The question we need to ask, is what will the effects of this be on the inhabitants?
Plastic itself can contain dangerous chemicals, but the bigger problem comes when it is exposed to heavy metals and toxic pollutants (such as pesticides or PCBS) as plastic will bind with both. This can be dangerous for any wildlife that ingests it. Also, if plastic is exposed to water, microorganisms can grow on it that release sulfur and other substances. This might smell appealing to some creatures and it’s especially worrying for those reliant on their sense of smell to hunt (e.g. birds). We also know that exposure to some chemicals in plastic can affect fish hormone levels, affecting their reproductive abilities too.’
M: ‘ This doesn’t sound very promising for the fishing community…’
S: ‘No it is quite serious. Without a healthy food web, the state of lakes and river water will be affected. This could be eutrophication - massive algal blooms, it’s hard to say, but it could definitely have a knock on effect on water sports industry. Soils could also be affected, if the lower levels of the food chain are harmed, which could affect farming. It is up to us to prevent this from happening.’
M: ‘So littering is affecting certain aspects of the fishing industry and fisheries around the world. I was always taught, that it is the responsibility of any angler to leave the areas they fish at in a better state than they found them. Social media has become an extremely powerful tool for the fishing community too. Initiatives spread like wildfire on social media channels, including the genius concept of ‘fill a net’. We also have access to a world of eco-gadgets including the Monomaster and fold away bins that are easily carryable on your fishing ventures. Do you think these actions will be enough?’
S: ‘They will definitely help, but I would even go one step further too. Basically, anybody who enjoys the Lake District or any outdoor space, needs to work harder to protect them. There are simple steps we can all take, such as purchasing a laundry ball to capture microfibres in the wash, reducing the amount of plastic we use in general and getting into a habit of picking up any of the litter that we do see. It will take every one of us to actually protect this place.’