Tangled in marine debris, skate egg cases dry up and die on Peruvian beaches

A new study has found that shorttail fanskate populations may be being affected by plastic pollution.The skates mistake abandoned fishing nets and other debris for seaweed and attach their eggs to them, unaware that the debris could wash up on the shore where the eggs will dry out.Shorttail fanskates (Sympterygia brevicaudata) are considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In recent decades, plastic pollution has become a key environmental issue. An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year, equivalent to a truckload of garbage dumped into the sea every minute — and it’s only projected to get worse. Scientists have reported that numerous marine species mistake plastic for food and ingest it, or become trapped in garbage, both of which can seriously threaten their survival. In addition, invertebrates and other marine organisms can become attached to floating plastic that travels long distances around the world, and scientists have warned that they risk becoming invasive alien species in their final destinations.
An iguana eating a plastic bag. Image courtesy of Galapagos Science Center.
A new study has revealed another problem with marine garbage, one that could be endangering Peru’s populations of shorttail fanskates (Sympterygia brevicaudata), a species of skate that is already considered near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The study’s authors report that it is common to see dead, dried-up skate egg cases attached to marine garbage washed up on beaches. The study was published in June in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.
But how do the eggs get caught in marine debris, and why do they die?
Hundreds of dead egg cases entangled in marine debris
In the city of Trujillo in northern Peru, members of the NGO ConservAccion conduct a survey of animals that, for various reasons, wash up on the area’s beaches. They’ve noticed that it it’s common to see skate egg cases attached to marine debris and that, most of the time the eggs have dried out, dooming the baby skates inside. Wanting to find out how widespread the problem is, the experts set themselves the task of counting all the eggs, identifying the type of garbage and plastic, and determining the places where this is most common.
“They are like little bags,” is how veterinarian Carlos Calvo-Mac, ConservAccion’s project director, described shorttail fanskate egg cases. “They are usually called mermaid’s purses, because they have that shape and even a leather-like texture,” he said.
Shorttail fanskate egg cases, photographed near Puerto Morín, Peru. Image by rob-westerduijn via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
“Skates do not give parental care; they simply lay their eggs,” said Miguel Valderrama Herrera, a fisheries biologist with ConservAccion and the study’s lead author. They make sure the eggs are fixed to something to prevent them from floating away. To enable this, the eggs have a tendril, “like a little rope that lets them attach, for example to algae,” he said.
In tropical seas, skates often attach the egg cases to coral, but they can use any structure, Valderrama said. This is how shorttail fanskates sometimes unwittingly choose marine debris, such as nets or other types of plastic, to deposit their egg cases. “What they don’t know is that these things, due to the action of the tide, can end up beached,” the biologist said. When it remains out of the water, the egg case dries out before it can hatch, and it dies.
During the shorttail fanskate’s spawning season between February and April, a group of eight people, made up of experts and volunteers, visited three beaches in the region of La Libertad, on the northern coast of Peru. They were looking for clusters of marine debris that had been in the sea for a certain period of time, to determine whether they contained egg cases.
Dried shorttail fanskate egg cases, which turn black when they dry, caught in marine debris. Image courtesy of ConservAccion.
In total, the researchers recorded 75 clusters containing 1,595 egg cases. Of these, 15.9% had presumably hatched. And of the total, 15.8% were still fresh, but the rest, 84.2%, had dried out.
The waste itself was mainly composed of plastic associated with fishing materials, primarily nets used by artisanal fishers. “These nets, made up of … a series of holes, are a tempting place for the skates to attach their eggs. The way they move in the water, being so light, can also imitate the movement of algae,” Valderrama said. Less frequently, the egg cases were also attached to fabric, rubber, foam plastic, metal, wood, paper or cardboard.
Most of the debris clusters and egg cases were found in the vicinity of the town of Puerto Morín, followed by the town of Salaverry and city of Huanchaco, according to the study. Valderrama said there were two reasons why most of the dried eggs were found in clumps of waste around Puerto Morín. “Puerto Morín survives almost exclusively from fishing and, being a bay, the clusters easily get trapped,” he said. The large number of egg cases found there have also led researchers to believe it may be a spawning ground for shorttail fanskates.
How much does the loss of all these eggs affect the shorttail fanskate’s survival?
Researchers analyze waste clusters while looking for shorttail fanskate egg cases. Image courtesy of ConservAccion.
A vulnerable species
Shorttail fanskates are typical of the shallow waters of the southeastern Pacific along the coasts of Ecuador, Peru and central Chile. They inhabit depths of 8-100 meters (26-328 feet), although they have also been accidentally caught by crustacean fisheries operating at depths down to 500 meters (1,640 feet), according to the study.
Even though fishers do not intentionally target fanskates, they are categorized as near threatened by the IUCN. Like sharks and chimaeras, skates are among the most threatened marine animals. In 2021, scientists classified one-third of the world’s species of sharks, rays, skates and chimaeras — 391 out of 1,199 species evaluated— as being critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable according to the IUCN. Species in these three IUCN categories are considered to be threatened with extinction.
In addition to being accidentally captured by nets and hooks set for other species, these animals “reproduce very little, so when they are affected by fishing or pollution, it can be very harmful,” Valderrama said.
A shorttail fanskate (Sympterygia brevicaudata). Image by ulrichzanabria via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
“Although there are numerous initiatives aimed at cleaning up solid waste on Peru’s beaches, I have yet to see any study on the impact of these campaigns. Do they really help?” said Calvo-Mac. According to the study’s authors, there’s a possibility WWF-Peru might install a fishing net recycling point in Puerto Morín.
WWF-Peru and Bureo, a fishing-gear recycling company, have already set up collection points in other areas along the Peruvian coast where fishermen can leave nets they no longer use and can learn about the impact of abandoning nets at sea. One of these points is on Los Organos beach, also located in the north of the country. “We saw truly great results just by offering this information and somewhere to deposit old nets,” said Aimée Leslie, WWF-Peru’s conservation director.
Banner Image: A washed-up egg case of a shorttail fanskate. Image by ulises_inf via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and published here on our Latam site on May 24, 2023.
Seeking a sanctuary for Peru’s sea life: Q&A with Yuri Hooker

Avila, C., Angulo-Preckler, C., Martín-Martín, R. P., Figuerola, B., Griffiths, H. J., & Waller, C. L. (2020). Invasive marine species discovered on non–native kelp rafts in the warmest Antarctic island. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-58561-y
Valderrama-Herrera, M., Cardenas, S. A., Calvo-Mac, C., Celi-Vértiz, R. G., Chumpitaz-Levano, V. L., Flores-Miranda, W. E., … De-la-Torre, G. E. (2023). Rajids ovipositing on marine litter: A potential threat to their survival. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 191, 114941. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2023.114941
Dulvy, N. K., Pacoureau, N., Rigby, C. L., Pollom, R. A., Jabado, R. W., Ebert, D. A., … Simpfendorfer, C. A. (2021). Overfishing drives over one-third of all sharks and rays toward a global extinction crisis. Current Biology, 31(22), 5118-5119. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2021.11.008

Animals, Biodiversity, Coastal Ecosystems, Conservation, Fish, Marine Animals, Marine Biodiversity, Marine Conservation, Marine Protected Areas, Oceans, Plastic, Pollution, Protected Areas, Rays, Sharks And Rays, Wildlife

Plastic pollution: Campaigners around the world are using the courts to clean up – but manufacturers are fighting back

Plastic pollution has become such major problem that it’s threatening our human rights. That’s the view of two UN special rapporteurs (human rights advisers) who recently issued a joint statement, warning against the “overwhelming toxic tidal wave” of plastic endangering us and the environment “in a myriad of ways over its life cycle”. They called for urgent action on dealing with this global crisis.

Such a call could not be timelier, as governments have achieved disappointingly little so far. Yes, most restrict single-use plastic bags, or some other type of single-use plastics. But such measures are clearly not enough.

Even the UN treaty on plastic pollution, which has been agreed in principle and is currently being negotiated, is unlikely to produce fundamental change, at least in the short term. And there is no guarantee any new measures it leads to would have a different fate from the many existing plastic pollution laws that governments fail to implement.

Amid growing concerns over plastic pollution and weak governmental response to it, individuals and communities have been seeking action by resorting to courts. I recently published an academic study on the global tug of war over plastic going on in courts in more than 30 countries.

I found lots of different approaches. Some argue that their governments do not implement the existing laws. For instance, a group in the Philippines has persuaded the country’s supreme court to review the government’s implementation of solid waste management law.

Around 10 million tonnes of plastic waste enters the ocean each year.
Erlo Brown / shutterstock

Others claim that their governments do not consider the impacts of plastic pollution when allowing new factories making plastic products. One group of Māori in New Zealand recently appealed a decision to expand a billion-bottle-per-year water plant.

Some seek compensation from plastic-producing companies for dumping waste into rivers, such as the Texas residents who won a US$50 million (£39 million) settlement after finding billions of plastic pellets in their local waterways.

Local governments are also increasingly turning to courts claiming that businesses deceptively market their plastic products as recyclable. Cases like these send a clear message to the governments and businesses that individuals and communities are concerned about the impacts of plastic pollution and want more decisive action to stop it.

Only a small fraction will ever be recycled.
batuhan taskinkaya / shutterstock

But at the same time, all these cases are only one part of the picture. Increasing restrictions on plastic products also result in claims brought by businesses that oppose such measures, including the producers of plastic products as well as supermarkets and restaurants, and ask the courts to quash them.

Cases where businesses argue that restrictions on plastic products cause economic loss or are scientifically unsubstantiated are very common throughout the world.

Businesses also regularly challenge provinces or cities that adopt additional restrictions to the ones imposed by national authorities. Such cases send the message that our society is still massively dependent on plastic products, and so measures to address plastic pollution need to be systemic.

The role of courts in tackling plastic pollution

The courts’ involvement has direct consequences for any attempts to tackle this global crisis and for action on environmental and health protection more generally. For example, businesses might be able to persuade a court to declare local anti-plastic pollution measures invalid.

This happened in Mexico recently when the nation’s supreme court ruled a ban on single-use plastics by the state of Oaxaca was unconstitutional. The success of such cases can prompt other businesses to challenge local environmental and health protection measures.

On the other hand, if a court upholds such measures, other local governments may decide to follow the example of their neighbours and introduce such measures as well. If anti-plastic pollution measures already exist, they can be used to persuade the courts that further action should be taken.

Similarly, by holding businesses accountable for pollution resulting from various stages of plastic life cycle, courts help protect vulnerable individuals and communities from various human rights violations caused by plastic pollution.

No single country has a comprehensive response to plastic pollution. But many are gradually tightening up measures on single-use plastics which moves the world closer towards a comprehensive regulatory response to this crisis.

Courts will undoubtedly continue playing an important role in this process. Those concerned about plastic pollution will keep pressing for tighter regulation, while those who oppose regulation will have more restrictions to challenge.

Don’t have time to read about climate change as much as you’d like?
Get a weekly roundup in your inbox instead. Every Wednesday, The Conversation’s environment editor writes Imagine, a short email that goes a little deeper into just one climate issue. Join the 20,000+ readers who’ve subscribed so far.

How plastics are poisoning us

Plastics appear everywhere: from human placentas to chasms 36,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Will we ever be rid of them? Elizabeth Kolbert writes for The New Yorker.In a nutshell:Born in 1865 out of a quest to eliminate elephant ivory from the billiard ball supply chain, plastics are now being spewed forth at an annual production volume of over 800 billion pounds. As plastics break down into microplastics and disperse, they make their way to the most distant parts of our planet and infiltrate the internal organs of species up and down the food chain with toxic chemicals. No amount of recycling, reusing or repurposing is going to solve the plastics problem.Key quote:Kolbert presents a reality check from Matt Simon, the author of a book about microplastics: “So long as we’re churning out single-use plastic . . . we’re trying to drain the tub without turning off the tap. We’ve got to cut it out.”Big picture:Reducing plastic pollution cannot be seriously entertained without a commitment to reducing, if not eliminating, plastic production. That in turn would involve a winding down of the petrochemical industry at precisely the point in time when Big Oil, faced with an energy transition to renewables, is looking to plastics as one of the mainstays of future profits. The oil and gas industry, protected by massive political might and bankrolled by decades of record profits and willing financiers will not go quietly.Read Elizabeth Kolbert’s astute analysis inThe New Yorker.

Microplastic exposure breeds antimicrobial resistance

Article body copy
Two scourges of 20th century public and environmental health—microplastics and antimicrobial resistance—seem to be teaming up to birth a whole new worry.
The ocean is teeming with microorganisms. And since the mid-20th century, plastic. Scientists have previously discovered how plastic creates habitat and a handy transport system for marine microbes, including potentially harmful human pathogens. Now, researchers led by Sasha Tetu, a microbiologist at Macquarie University in Australia, have shown that chemicals leaching from marine microplastic pollution can alter the composition of microbial communities, making them more virulent and increasing the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance.
Tetu and her colleagues conducted their work in the lab. They collected samples of seawater, mixed them with the leachates from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and analyzed how the DNA of the bacteria living in the water changed over six days.
PVC is one of the most common plastics, and like many other plastics, it leaches additives like metals, dyes, and stabilizers—compounds added to improve the plastic’s performance.
The scientists aren’t exactly sure how or why, but the plastic-addled bacteria increasingly carry genes related to higher virulence and antimicrobial resistance.
When they dug deeper into their results, they found that the effect is more complex than a blanket increase in resistance to all antimicrobials. Instead, the bacteria showed an increased abundance of genes that offer resistance to some classes of antimicrobials and a decreased prevalence of genes protecting them from other groups of antibiotics.
Likewise, the prevalence of genes that encode for certain types of virulence, such as mechanisms to suppress a host’s immune response, increased significantly, while those linked to other harmful activities decreased.
Many of the genes for antimicrobial resistance were identified in bacteria that are not known to be human pathogens. But this does not mean they do not pose a risk to human health, Tetu says. “Microbes have many different ways of sharing genes, often across distantly related lineages.”
Tetu says her research is a first step and that more investigation is needed to determine how plastic leachates may be affecting microbial communities. But the gist is that plastic exposure seems to select for hardier microbes, with increasing antimicrobial resistance being an unhappy little accident.
“Exposure to such leached chemicals,” says Tetu, “selects for a suite of opportunistic environmental microbes that are likely more metabolically versatile and also happen to carry a variety of genes associated with antimicrobial resistance.”
Emily Stevenson, a graduate student at the University of Exeter in England, studies how microplastics affect the spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria. She says this new research gets at important questions around how plastic exposure changes microbial communities. How well the laboratory findings translate into real-world conditions is hard to know, but Stevenson says it’s worrying.
“What I am particularly concerned about,” she says, “is where these leachates are antimicrobials themselves.” A lot of plastics are impregnated with known antimicrobials, such as triclosan. “If that is bioavailable to the bugs, then that would be adding a selective pressure, so they are likely to evolve antimicrobial resistance,” she adds.

The Ocean Race: Teams helping track warming sea and plastic pollution

“I had to jump over the side of the boat with a knife, like a pirate. We had ropes, fishing nets, pieces of garbage stuck around the hydrofoils.”Will Harris is a British sailor competing for Team Malizia in The Ocean Race, which finishes this week in Genoa, Italy, after a 60,000km circumnavigation of the globe over the past six months.The teams have combined navigating what is considered one of the longest and toughest professional sporting events in the world with also doing their bit for climate impact research.The boats are gathering information on plastic pollution, rising ocean temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide and salt in the seas.”This garbage has been in the ocean for 40 or 50 years,” says Harris. “They end up a combination of rope, plastic – which isn’t degrading – and sea life which has tried to grow on it.”Imagine what it’s going to be like in 300 years time. It’s really scary and really eye opening.”The amount of plastic found in the ocean is increasing, with some areas showing a 20% rise from the last race in 2018. Plastic is just one of the growing environmental impacts on our oceans, which Harris and the five teams competing have witnessed.”I’ve seen things like sargassum seaweed clogging up the Caribbean,” adds Harris. “We’ve seen less and less wildlife in particular, such as birds in the ocean and the storms that we experience at sea are getting more and more intense. “So it’s interesting that even in the few years I’ve been doing this racing, we’re starting to see changes already. And often it’s not for the better.”Ocean temperatures hottest on recordGlobal warming is causing ocean temperatures to rise as well, with record temperatures already reached this year.The North Atlantic ocean around the UK, which is an area of concern, has seen some of the most intense marine heat increases on Earth.Oceans and seas cover 70% of the world’s surface, absorb more than 90% of heat from the sun and drive weather systems, so the speed of the warming effect is far-reaching. Dr Marilena Oltmanns specialises in ocean and climate at the National Oceanography Centre and told the BBC the increase in ocean temperatures were “unprecedented” and “very alarming”.In the past 10 years the distance sailed in The Ocean Race has increased by 30%, with an exclusion zone around Antarctica being moved 1,000 miles further north due to more melting ice and the risk of icebergs.Harris adds: “There’s lots of stories now about huge icebergs ending up on South Georgia Island [in the South Atlantic Ocean] and they’re going to potentially wipe out some pretty crucial wildlife spots.”The bigger that this ice exclusion zone gets, the longer our race course ends up being because we have to sail further around Antarctica.”Boats doing their bitAll the boats competing in this 14th edition of the race have been fitted with scientific monitoring equipment to take readings in some of the most remote parts of the world’s oceans and deliver data to scientists at the UK Oceanography Centre to study. Results have found even in the most remote areas of the planet the presence of microplastics is pervasive.Dr Katsiaryna Pabortsava is studying the results from the boats’ data at the National Oceanography Centre.”Every sample that we analysed so far had microplastics in it. And we are seeing more microplastics in the samples from this year’s race in comparison to the last race that took place in 2017-2018,” she says.Dr Pabortsava adds some samples showed the quantity of microplastics was “20 times higher”, but the methods used were “a lot more sensitive”.

When the water isn't safe to drink

This story was originally published by Capital B. Sign up for Capital B’s weekly newsletter to follow similar stories.

Black Americans struggling to live through a water crisis are urging the rest of the country to recast what is viewed as violence. 

“People just don’t get the big picture,” says Brooke Floyd, coordinator for the Jackson People’s Assembly, a social justice organization in Jackson, Mississippi. “There are a lot of things that are making [the water crisis] a bigger storm. People [have] lost their lives.”

Ultimately, when someone doesn’t have access to clean water, or water at all, that’s a consequential choice being made by those in power, explains LaTricea Adams, the founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint. And while the reasons driving the crisis look very different depending on where you live, the bottom line is the same: You can’t survive without water. 

Without access to clean water, families’ food options and hygiene practices are limited. The ways that people are able to share space with one another are tainted, and community violence levels sometimes rise as this form of divestment in Black communities persists. And residents fear the long-term effects. 

“We’re scared that this is going to last forever,” Floyd says. “We are here and we deserve to thrive, just like everyone else does. Our people here deserve the best of everything, and they deserve water, just like everyone else does.” 

But Black communities refuse to stop fighting for their right to access clean water. Some have dedicated years to advocating for themselves and their neighbors, while others have learned to just stop depending on the water trickling through their hoses. Of the roughly three dozen Southern residents that Capital B interviewed, just two people regularly consumed the tap water in their home. 

For weeks, Capital B traveled across the South to understand how the country’s water crisis is affecting Black life. Here’s what they told us:

Opelousas: ‘I’m not really safe here’

Just the night before, Xavier Bryant, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed down the street from the home of Nyla Belton’s family. It was the fifth fatal shooting in the rural city of 16,000 in the first three months of 2023. 

Only 14 years old, Belton has already come to terms with the realities of living in Opelousas, Louisiana, where she says gun violence and governmental neglect are normal.

An abandoned gas station in Opelousas, Louisiana.
Rita Harper / Capital B

Louisiana has the country’s second-highest gun violence rate, with Black residents dying at a rate more than eight times higher than white people. Excluding a small town of just 600 residents, Opelousas has the state’s highest violent crime rate.

But the city’s violence isn’t only at the hands of weapons; it also looks like the brown water trickling out of her faucet, the crumbling roads and sidewalks, and a lack of educational opportunities. Opelousas’ water system is one of 64 — out of 954 statewide — that received an “F” grade from Louisiana’s Department of Health for water issues in 2022.

“It makes me feel unsafe and unsanitary and that everything is dirty,” she says. “The water companies and the government don’t really care.” 

The lack of investment in her neighborhood has left the teenager dreaming of moving out of the city to “explore the world.” She wants to move to Texas after she graduates from high school. 

“There is not a lot to do or people that you can trust out here. I’m not really safe here,” she says. 

While many factors lead to communal violence, water contamination and lack of access to water play significant roles, studies have shown. Both instances alter how the brain processes and rationalizes information and are associated with sudden bouts of anger.

As such, a lack of access to water also dictates how people within these communities relate to one another.

Urban planners and environmental activists have increasingly pointed to the “cues to care” theory, which explains that if there is visible maintenance, care, and investment into communities, social cohesion follows. 

Community organizers Eric and Marie Williams have seen it firsthand. For the last several years, the couple has dedicated themselves to lowering the city’s gun violence rate after witnessing two family members lose their lives after an argument led to a gunfight. “We lost twice,” Eric says, “one to the graveyard, one to the prison system.”  

The couple hosts regular “peace walks” where residents march throughout the city advocating for people to put the “guns down and power up.” They’ve also begun partnering with local schools and have spent much time in the city’s public housing complexes. There, they began to make the connections between public health, a lack of community investments, and the violence they were so often seeing. 

They’ve noticed how it’s impacted life-or-death issues, like people’s food options and how people feel about themselves. “[Water contamination] really is an issue, sometimes every other day. We have to buy water to cook even,” Eric says. 

“We even have a dog; we give him bottled water. That’s how sick it is,” Marie adds. “People have babies they have to feed — c’mon.”

Lake Charles: ‘It has been killing us for 60 years’

Debra Ramirez took a sip from her plastic water bottle every few minutes while sitting at a table inside Leonard’s Food Quarters in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In between gulps and bites that she snuck out of a styrofoam container stuffed with a Southern-sized heaping of baked chicken, she pointed to a homemade laminated poster and read from a decades-old newspaper clipping.

Debra Ramirez sits in front of her home in Lake Charles, Louisiana in April. She says she’s faced violent threats while ringing the alarm about her home’s water woes.
Rita Harper / Capital B

All the items were made with plastic, some probably containing polymers — a key component of plastic — that were produced just a few miles away from where she sat.

Plastic has made life seemingly more convenient, but its production, water usage, and pollution are life-threatening. In Lake Charles, these plants have dumped toxins into the soil and rivers, bayous, and lakes for generations. Tests have shown that the chemicals have found their way deep into the groundwater the city depends on for drinking water. 

George Orphrey, a Lake Charles resident and former chemical plant worker, has seen it up close. One day, he was tasked with digging a “big ol’ hole” in a channel. He believed they were  dredging the area to “bring a boat in through the river.”

“What we were actually doing was putting a drainage pipe in to dump the chemical byproduct directly into it,” he explained. For obvious reasons, he and his wife, Wanda, don’t drink the water in their home. 

As Ramirez has jumped between communities in the Lake Charles area, she doesn’t remember the last time her water wasn’t murky. In the previous six decades, she’s seen a rainbow of colors drip from her faucet: brown, green, and even pink. 

Since the 1980s, she has worked hard not to normalize the situation, having advocated for remediation and climate reparations for decades. Sometimes the advocacy has placed her in danger, she says. Not too long ago, just days after she began making public information about an ongoing pollution event from one of the chemical plants in her area, a brick came crashing through her window in the middle of the night. 

“You’d be surprised, people don’t know that these things go on,” she says. “People get hurt.” 

She believes the water contamination has helped contribute to high cancer rates and premature death throughout the region. Governmental and academic surveys and studies back up her assertion.  

“You can’t survive without water, you can’t survive without air, and you can’t survive without land,” Ramirez says plainly on a morning in March, alluding to the different ways the chemical plants in her backyard have contaminated the earth around her.

She argues that even if the water is tested, treated, and cleaned, its “cleanliness” only lasts so long because the chemicals have seeped and spread throughout the area. 

“[The Environmental Protection Agency] says the water is safe to drink, but when it comes down to it, it has been killing us for 60 years,” Ramirez said, standing next to a sign that read “WARNING: Brine Pipeline,” one of the many chemical solutions infiltrating the region’s groundwater. 

Beaumont: ‘Shit Falls’

Chris Jones and his neighbors in the Charlton Pollard neighborhood of Beaumont, Texas, jokingly call the highway underpass that connects their community to the rest of the city “Shit Falls.” 

The joke isn’t funny for too long, though, he says, because then reality sets in. Due to an aging sewer system, the city’s waterways are inundated with feces, including the Neches River, one of the city’s two primary drinking water sources.  

Not only is the river overfilled with bacteria, but it’s also an industrial dumping ground where sulfur and chloride are found. Of the roughly 140 refineries operating in the U.S., Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont Refinery dumped the third-most unregulated pollutants into the nation’s waterways in 2021, with over 103 million pounds of discharge. 

The discharge makes clean water hard to find in the majority-Black city because the salts and pollutants corrode the equipment at water treatment facilities, requiring the city to update equipment much sooner, but funds are rarely available. 

Instead, they’re left with “Band-Aid” solutions, like regularly flushing out their municipal water lines into the street to clear them of chemicals, residual chlorine, and the occasional unintentional blob of feces. 

The corrosion is so bad, Jones says, that city officials have acknowledged that water lines have been completely eviscerated in some neighborhoods. 

At one point, his water was so brown it looked like “a dark cognac” or like he had “tea on tap,” prompting him to bring the issue to the City Council. When the water department director visited Jones’ home, he says, the city worker told him plainly that the water line “was no longer there.” 

“It was just the cavity in the ground,” Jones recalls. “So the sewer pipe was contaminating and infiltrating the allegedly potable water.”

In December, Beaumont officials announced a $25 million plan to stop brown water from flowing through residents’ sinks, but it may be coming too late. The decades of neglect have created significant distrust between residents, the city government, and water in general. For years, those residents who were fortunate enough to afford to leave the city have, while those who remained turned to fend for themselves. 

Some residents don’t even trust bottled water now.

“We’ve been stopped drinking [tap] water,” Beaumont resident Tara Bettis says. “They say to drink bottled water instead, but I’ve been told that some companies just use tap water in the bottle.” 

“I don’t know what to trust.” 

“Cancer Alley”: Dealing with the cards given

Travis London is still reeling from video footage that captured a white worker at a Donaldsonville water plant urinating into a huge tank holding the city’s water supply.

A pile of water bottles sit on the floor of a trailer home in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” More than half of Black Americans exclusively drink bottled water rather than tap water.
Adam Mahoney/Capital B

“That was crazy, and then no telling how many times he did it,” says the Donaldsonville resident about the situation in March. 

The white worker, who looked directly into the security camera, was arrested on two counts of criminal damage to critical infrastructure and two counts of contaminating the 85% Black city’s water supply. The motive behind the worker’s actions hasn’t been made public, but for residents, it’s just another drop in the bucket of disregard at the hands of city leaders. 

“It’s horrible. Water is life, and the water system not being right is like you taking away the life I deserve, my family deserves,” London says.  

It’s not the first time in recent memory that the city’s water was contaminated. In 2016, when a private company ran the water plant, errors at the plant left five times the EPA’s limits of chlorine dioxide in the water, leading to a state of emergency declaration. The water contamination forced schools to shut down, and an annual Easter lunch for the city’s elementary students was canceled, with 600 baked chicken and mashed potatoes lunches thrown in the trash. 

In the years since, London has seen his water alternate from a Hulk green color to a muddy brown. He believes that elements of racism have allowed the city’s water issues to fester, especially given the town’s location in the heart of “Cancer Alley,” where residents have some of the country’s highest cancer rates from living close to hundreds of oil and chemical plants. 

Many Black residents in the town, and all throughout Cancer Alley, have called Louisiana home for centuries, working and watching the land as it changed from plantation country to oil country. As a result, he believes that some residents have normalized the mistreatment, not understanding that they deserve better resources. 

“[Donaldsonville residents] are so used to it that now they don’t have a problem with not having a drink of water,” London says. “They got to the point where they kinda lost hope and just deal with the cards given.” 

Memphis: Climate change taints world’s ‘sweetest water’

In Black Soulsville, a neighborhood in South Memphis, the feeling of community is all-encompassing. From morning until night, folks gather on their porches, playing music, shouting jokes at passing cars, and playing slightly contentious games of spades. 

Memphis, Tennessee, which is now the country’s largest majority-Black city, is facing the impacts of decades of divestment.
Adam Mahoney/Capital B

Don’t get it wrong, though; Memphians will let you know how tough the city is, hardened by decades of segregation and divestment. While the neighborhoods are full of energy, it’s typical for people to have abandoned and crumbling structures as neighbors and to travel long distances for fresh food.

Despite the hardships, according to most residents you’ll talk to in the city, one thing is for sure: Memphis has the best and cleanest water in the world. 

“Our water has always been the best, everyone knows that since birth,” says Chris, a Black Soulsville resident who did not feel comfortable sharing his last name. “Now, if you drive 15 minutes out of Memphis into Mississippi, you know you can’t trust it. You have to boil your water.” 

It’s a statement you’d only make with a certain kind of pride and love for your home, but at one point, there was real, if not slightly subjective, science backing the assertion. 

As of late, however, the claim has lost its validity, the product of climate change and industrial pollution. Climate change has made severe weather events more common, and the city’s aging infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep up. It has also heightened the likelihood of contamination as industrial pollutants have infiltrated the region’s groundwater, made easier by fluctuating water levels.

For three years, a concrete plant in Black Soulsville dumped toxins in the water as an environmental consultant forged documents about testing the area’s water sources. 

Chris was unaware that this happened, but it didn’t change his opinion of the city. “I like Memphis water.”

A few miles southwest of Black Soulsville, another community struggles with a similar situation. Every day, dump trucks carrying highly toxic coal ash make 120 trips between a recently shuttered coal-fired power plant to this semi-rural neighborhood in South Memphis. 

For decades, coal ash, the waste composed of mercury and arsenic left behind by burning coal, seeped from the plant into Memphis’ deep soil, threatening the city’s only water source. A recent report named the plant the 10th worst contaminated site in the country. 

To ensure the coal ash does not continue to find its way into the aquifer, the plant operators have been ordered to move it to a landfill nestled in a majority-Black neighborhood already overburdened by the city’s growing trucking and logistics industry, home to the likes of Amazon. 

It’s an omen for the future, says Memphis resident Anthony Copeland. 

“I haven’t seen a change in my water yet,” he said. “But we got these warehouses, and the winter storms, and the [coal plant] trying to mess all that up.”

In Bangladesh, microplastic threat to frogs is also concern for rice farming

Researchers have found microplastics in 90% of frogs sampled from the Bengal Delta in Bangladesh.The finding raises concerns about the freshwater ecosystem health and rice cultivation, given that frogs are a key “natural insecticide” keeping pest numbers in check.The study adds to a growing body of literature on the prevalence of microplastic pollution in Bangladesh.Nearly a tenth of the 8,000 metric tons of trash generated daily in the country is plastic waste, for which there’s no proper disposal. DHAKA — Studies on the hazards of microplastics have tended to focus on their presence in the food chain and risks to human health. A new study now shows they also pose a threat to the quality of freshwater environments by impacting a wide range of frog species.
The study of 27 frogs from nine species collected around the Bengal Delta in Bangladesh found a substantial presence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tracts of 90% of them. Microplastic ingestion can cause severe health damage and even death, says the study, the first of its kind in the country.
Plastics are ubiquitous in Bangladesh, as in many other Global South countries, and tend to be disposed of directly into the environment, including dumped in rivers and other water bodies As they move downstream, they break down into increasingly smaller pieces, ending up as microplastics that animals like frogs ultimately eat.
“Ingestion of plastic damages the frog’s stomach and leads it to collapse. Frogs that have been exposed to plastic die as a result,” said study co-author Shafi Mohammad Tareq, a hydrobiogeochemist at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka.
A yellow-striped frog (Hylarana tytleri), commonly found in pools, lakes, marshes, and artificially flooded agricultural areas. Image by abinashbiswal via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Biodiversity and agriculture under threat
Frogs are an essential component of a healthy wetlands ecosystem, protecting biodiversity and native ecological balance, and serving as an indicator of ecosystem health. In Bangladesh, they’re also essential for rice cultivation, serving as a natural pest control by feeding on the larvae of insects that would otherwise damage the crop.
But their existence has long been at threat from human-caused factors, including the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides in rice cultivation, plastic pollution, and loss of habitat and breeding grounds. The threats at one point including harvesting of the frogs so that they could be butchered and their legs exported as a delicacy. But Bangladesh banned this practice when it became apparent that declining frog numbers in rice-growing areas coincided with a drop in rice yields.
The worry is that this same cycle could be playing out again, this time with microplastics as the main culprit, Tareq said.
“Frogs play a role in crop protection and production by eating harmful pests and insects. That’s why frogs are also called ‘natural insecticides.’ So, we can say that the endangered frog directly threatens crop production,” he said.
Bangladesh is home to 47 species of frogs, of which nine are threatened and six near-threatened, according to the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority.
The study calls for planned actions to conserve frog populations and thereby protect the environment and ensure a safe food supply. It warns that when frog populations decline due to exposure to microplastics, the ecosystem will be severely disrupted.
A 2022 study analyzing the ecological risk of microplastics on aquatic ecosystems found an abundance of the pollutant in surface water and underlying sediments of several lakes and peripheral rivers of Dhaka. The Bangladeshi capital is one of the world’s most populous cities, generating much of the 8,000 metric tons of waste produced daily across the country. Nearly a tenth of this solid waste is plastic, for which there’s no proper disposal.
The study, on which Tareq was also a co-author, found microplastics present in water and sediment samples from across Dhaka and surrounding areas, at levels higher than in the same type of ecology in Shanghai, the largest urban area in China.
Banner image: A Bengal whipping frog (Polypedates taeniatus). Image by avrajjal via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0). 
Microplastics plus organic pollutants equals 10 times the toxicity, study finds

Shetu, M. H., Parvin, F., & Tareq, S. M. (2023). Identifying the presence of microplastics in frogs from the largest delta of the world. Environmental Advances, 11, 100355. doi:10.1016/j.envadv.2023.100355
Parvin, F., Hassan, M. A., & Tareq, S. M. (2022). Risk assessment of microplastic pollution in urban lakes and peripheral rivers of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, 8, 100187. doi:10.1016/j.hazadv.2022.100187
Feedback: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.

Agriculture, Amphibians, Biodiversity, Environment, Freshwater Animals, Freshwater Ecosystems, Frogs, Herps, Microplastics, Plastic, Pollution, Rice, Waste, Wildlife

The ‘Sisyphus of trash’ struggles to clean relentless waves of plastic from a New York island’s beaches

In just three years, Michele Klimczak has picked, hauled, weighed, documented and sorted more than 32,000 pounds of garbage from the shores of Fisher’s Island, New York. She finds plastics stamped with product expiration dates going back two decades washed up all around the roughly four square mile stretch of land in the Long Island Sound.

For Michele, collecting marine garbage is literally a full-time job, one she holds with the Fisher’s Island Conservancy, a non-profit tasked with caring for the island’s natural resources. There is no off-season—her job is year-round, through rain, snow and heat, to counter a ballooning waste problem. She’s collected garbage on the island for about two decades, full-time since 2018.

But despite her long efforts, she’s only watched the problem grow.

“I’m a total optimist, but it never works out that way,” Michele says. “I leave my truck with my bags and I’m thinking ‘I wonder if I’ll find anything today?,’ which is ridiculous.”

She says she’s never failed to fill her bag.

”But the next day I just have the same attitude—hoping I’m going to find less—but unfortunately that really hasn’t been the case.”

On Earth Day, Michele collected 62 pounds of trash over the span of roughly one-twentieth of a mile—a section she cleaned about a month earlier. A few volunteers helped that day, but she normally collects just as much single-handedly. 

An assortment of the trash collected on Earth Day 2023. Bottle caps, balloons and balloon string, straws, polystyrene, miniature liquor bottles, lighters, tampon applicators, plastic utensils and more are commonly found throughout the brush and sand on Fisher’s Island beaches. Credit: Devin Speak

A few days later, I helped Michele collect about 100 pounds of trash on a beach further up the coast. We returned the very next day to the same stretch of sand and gathered nearly 150 pounds more. Even then, after hours of picking up garbage and with no space left in our bags, we left a lot behind.

“It’s so hard, it’s so hard [to stop] when you’re passing stuff and you’re like ‘there actually is no room left in these big sacks,’” Michele says. “It makes me nuts.”

Despite the weight, much of the garbage Michele finds are tiny plastics: balloon strings, bottle caps, lighters, indistinguishable objects broken down into tiny bits of assorted colors, and countless styrofoam beads strewn about the sand and brush. It all accumulates into synthetic rainbows piled high like monuments to our love affair with polymers.

Michele scours the beach on her hands and knees picking up all the small bits because they’re easy to overlook, but incredibly detrimental to the natural environment. 

Small bits of plastic are easily ingested by wildlife and wreak havoc on habitats.

“A lot of fish and birds, they may be actually looking for certain [foods] that are, you know, white and buoyant, and a lot of plastic would fit this and look like fish eggs, say rising at the surface,” said Syma Ebbin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and researcher with Connecticut Sea Grant. Even scientists can confuse tiny bits of plastic with organic matter, she added.

“[Plastic] can also act as a vector for [disease and chemical] contaminants that could then bio accumulate in the organisms that are ingesting them,” Ebbin said.

Michele Klimczak selects pieces of trash to give to artists for use it in their work. Duke Riley, one of those artists, has an exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum through July 16th, 2023, showing art made with the trash Michele collects . Riley was the first to give Michele the affectionate ‘Sisyphus of trash’ nickname. Credit: Devin Speak

A broken boat that washed up on Fisher’s Island, New York, becomes a trash hauler for Klimczak, who fills the vessel with larger pieces of rubbish as she drags it across the beach. She often improvises ways of moving larger objects by using the garbage she finds, like the polypropylene rope tied off to the bow of this boat. Credit: Devin Speak

Marine waste is not unique to Fisher’s Island. But the island serves as a haven for rare and threatened plants and wildlife, making the effects of all that garbage particularly worrisome.

Fisher’s holds nearly unscathed expanses of habitat offering a natural refuge for many species away from busier shores in the Northeast. Its waters host a substantial amount of the remaining seagrass that has declined from much of the Long Island Sound; an abundance of bird species nest around the island, including the threatened Piping Plover and formerly endangered Osprey.

Part of that is thanks to Michele, but possibly the largest factor has to do with the wealth present on the island.

Much of Fisher’s Island is gated, with multi-million dollar summer homes that are occupied just a few weeks or months each year. It’s nearly vacant outside of the summer season, when a few thousand people fill the island. The last census pegged the year-round population at just 58, although many residents place the number somewhere over 200. That year-round population keeps the island functioning, with many serving as caretakers for mansions.

Flower beds and well-manicured hedges and lawns, like these near the Fisher’s Island ferry terminal, define many of the homes of Fisher’s Island. Credit: Devin Speak

Unlike other havens for the affluent like nearby Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons, many seasonal residents endeavor to keep tourists out and preserve the island as a relative secret. 

There are no attractions for those who don’t have a home on Fisher’s Island—no hotels, no year-round cafes or restaurants, just one small market with spotty hours, and a top-rated golf course tucked into the access-controlled east end of the island. According to year-rounders, the summer residents hold tight control over the island and its doings.

That isolation crafted the beauty that drew Michele to the island decades ago. And it prompted her to begin picking up beach garbage.

Michele Klimczak with a selection of the rubbish she finds during her daily cleanups of the beaches of Fisher’s Island, New York. Credit: Devin Speak

“I do it because the first time I came here, this place was my soul. It’s so untouched,” she said. “There’s no McDonald’s, no Dunkin Donuts, none of that here, no stoplights. It’s just so preserved and natural. And when I saw how much garbage was on the shoreline, I couldn’t help but pick it up. And then I couldn’t stop seeing it,” she says.

The island’s exclusivity has made for excellent wildlife habitat, and the year-round residents love the beauty and isolation. But Fisher’s also shows the flipside of environmental injustice—while poverty can correlate to poor environmental conditions, wealth can create green safe havens reserved for the elite.

Even Michele is a symbol of the disparity. For many places, collecting beach trash is a volunteer job and it’s certainly not full-time or year-round. The Island’s seasonal residents are capable of funding a healthy conservancy, which had assets exceeding $1 million in 2020 according to ProPublica, and bankrolling important jobs like the one Michele fulfills. The same level of financial investment to environmental safeguarding is not likely available to most communities.

Michele Klimczak gathers trash from a Fisher’s Island beach while golfers play on the greens of the Island’s private golf course above her. Credit: Devin Speak

So the fact that the island serves as a sanctuary for critical ecosystems is good and needed, but the wealth inequity that makes that possible is ultimately unsustainable if the end goal is reversing environmental degradation.

Wealth can also fund pricey climate adaptation measures to protect the world’s top earners, even as they are responsible for the lion’s share of the activities driving climate change. 

Keep Environmental Journalism AliveICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now

Working Towards a Circular Economy in the Clothing Industry

The concept of a circular economy has gained significant attention as a transformative approach to addressing the environmental challenges posed by our linear consumption patterns. In a circular economy, resources are used, reused, and recycled to create a closed-loop system, minimizing waste and maximizing value. Implementing a circular approach in the clothing industry in particular …

Investigating Fast Fashion’s Microplastic Problem: Contamination in the Fashion Industry’s Supply Chain

As the fast fashion industry continues to grow, so does its environmental impact. With a surge in synthetic fibers and disposable garments entering our oceans, landfills, and waterways every day, it has become increasingly clear that there is an urgent need to address the hidden microplastic problem within the fashion industry’s supply chains.  In this …