Subtle ecosystem effects of microplastic exposure in marine mesocosms including fish

Foekema, Edwin M.; Keur, Martijn; Vlies, Liesbeth Van Der; Weide, Babeth Van Der; Bittner, Oliver; Murk, Albertinka J.


For two months, communities in 5.8 m3 outdoor marine mesocosms were exposed to 700 μm sphere-shaped polystyrene (PS) beads in dosages between 0.08 and 80 g/m2 . Barnacle (Semibalanus balanoides) densities were reduced at dosages of 0.8 g/m2 onwards without following a standard dose response curve. Lugworms and fish (Solea solea) ingested PS-beads without accumulating them. Lugworms (Arenicola marina) ingested the beads nonselective with the sediment without negative effects. The fish seemed to ingest the plastics only occasionally
and at the final sampling day even in the highest dosed mesocosms (>30 beads/cm2) only 20% contained plastic. The condition index of the fish was slightly reduced in mesocosms with dosages of 0.8 g/m2 onwards. No difference in condition was found between fish with and without ingested plastic across mesocosms, illustrating the difficulty to relate plastic ingestion with condition from field data. The fish also ingested mollusks with shells exceeding the size of the PS-beads. Bivalves rejected the PS-beads as pseudofeces, without obvious impact on their condition. Mussel’s (Mytilus edulis) pseudofeces present an effective matrix to monitor microplastic presence in the water column. Species richness and diversity of the pelagic and benthic community were not affected
although, a trend was found that the lower microplastic dosages had a positive effect on the total abundance of benthic invertebrates. In general, the observed effects at even the highest exposure concentrations were that subtle that they will be obscured by natural variation in the field. This underlines the importance of experiments under semi-field conditions for meaningful assessment of the ecological impact of microplastics. This study was performed with the real life, non-toxic, sphere-shaped polystyrene beads as were lost during an actual spill near the Dutch Wadden sea in January 2019. We recommend future mesocosm studies with other types of microplastics, including microfibers, weathered microplastics from sea, and smaller sized particles down to nanoplastics.