Wild Ideas: Nature Notes: Plastic in oysters, nature events

Library of Congress
Harvesting oysters from a skipjack in Chesapeake Bay (Talbot County, Maryland) Library of Congress

As I was digging out from under Winter Storm Jonas, a flood of messages about nature events (see sidebar) and other nature news took the place of the storm-related ones that had been filling up my email inbox, including a reminder of the local Oysterfest at River District Arts in Sperryville.

The raw oysters I ate at the Oysterfest (with plenty of lemon juice and hot sauce), fresh from the Chesapeake Bay, were some of the best I’ve ever had. I spent some very happy times as a child fishing in the Bay, so I have a special place in my heart for this amazing estuary, the largest in the contiguous United States.

Oysters have been a critical component of the Bay’s ecological health, and in the local economy along its shores — so much so that they were the cause of the Oyster War there in the late nineteenth century. These shellfish have suffered immensely from pollution for decades, and a huge effort has gone into trying to restore their habitat and thus their populations, but pollution is still a threat.

A few days after the Oysterfest, I received an email about the February issue of Science magazine, which includes an article about oysters being harmed by their ingesting tiny bits of plastic. I wasn’t surprised to hear oysters were consuming plastic, considering the amount of plastic bags and bottles swept into the marine estuaries in which they breed.

But it’s more than the breakdown of such trash that accounts for microplastics in the environment. One important source appears to be sewage contaminated by fibres from washing clothes, according to a paper published in the Science & Technology Journal in 2011. And in recent decades a new source of microplastics has compounded the problem: plastic “microbeads.”

These microbeads have been added to personal cleansing products, from toothpaste to facial cleansers, for scrubbing and exfoliating. While some products are available that have environmentally friendly scrubbing beads made from seeds, shells, and other organic products, I found only plastic beads in the ingredient lists of the twenty-plus products on the shelf at a big-box store recently.

In the study cited in the Science article, published Feb. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, French researcher Rossana Sussarellu and her colleagues describe plastic microparticles, or “microplastics,” as “a contaminant of emerging concern accumulating in marine ecosystems.” As more plastic enters into our waterways from products and industrial processes, more gets broken down into microplastics, which in turn can be consumed by marine wildlife. Their study focused on Pacific oysters.

Oysters eat by sucking in water, retaining the plankton in it and spitting the rest out. Sussarellu and her colleagues exposed Pacific oysters in the lab to six-micrometer microplastics (roughly the width of spider silk) added to water. The oysters ingested 69 percent of the plastic. Ending up in the oysters’ guts, the microplastics were shown to lower the oysters’ reproduction through disrupting their digestion or their hormone systems, negatively affecting their reproduction: Females made fewer eggs and males made slower sperm, which resulted in fewer offspring, which mature more slowly.

Oysters and other marine animals are not the only wildlife in danger from ingesting trash that ends up in our waterways. A 2015 study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin (search on “doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.05.063”) found that waterfowl, especially mallards (about half), ingested both plastic and metal from foraging in polluted waters.

So why be concerned about our wildlife eating plastics? As an article in Slate magazine (slate.com; search on “plastic microbeads”) explained:

“The concern is that once out in the wild, the pellets absorb toxins. Such pesticides, then migrate into the food chain after being consumed by fish and other marine organisms that mistake them for eggs or plankton. Those toxins could then, eventually, end up in the fish fillets or sushi on your dinner plate.”

For more on the impact of plastics in the food web, including their effect on humans, check out an article on the On the Cutting Edge website.

After heavy lobbying by environmental groups, Congress passed a law phasing out the use of plastic microbeads, which was signed into law in December. While products with the beads should start disappearing, many are still on the shelves, so it’s good to check carefully in the ingredients of any products that offer “scrubbing” particles, or just don’t buy them.

© 2016 Pam Owen

Upcoming Nature Events

Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 12–15): Hosted by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, this count collects data on wild birds, displaying results in near real-time. See submitted results within an hour, in lists and lighting up animated maps (see my Feb. 26, 2015, column). To join thousands of people across the planet to create this annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds, visit the GBBC website.

Virginia Native Plant Society Walk at Weston WMA this Sunday (Feb. 14, 1–3 p.m.): The Piedmont Chapter’s always-informative “Second Sunday” walk this month is at Weston Wildlife Management Area, in Fauquier County. Led by VDGIF biologist Ron Hughes, who manages this and other WMAs in northern Virginia, the easy 1.5- to two-mile walk goes through diverse upland and floodplain forests that are significant ecological communities, with elm and other hardwoods. The walk is free, a tour of Weston Colonial House has a $5 admission fee. The public is welcome; no pets. Dress for the weather and wear sturdy footwear. A limited number of spaces are available, so RSVP to piedmontvnps@gmail.com or call Jocelyn Sladen (540-347-7748).

By Pam Owen
Learn how to plant for native pollinators, among other wildlife, at the Habitat Conservation Forum in Culpeper on Feb. 24. By Pam Owen

Habitat Conservation Forum (Feb. 24, 9–4): Co-sponsored by VDGIF and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the forum includes talks by Doug Tallamy, Claudia West and others on planting for wildlife, ecological planting design, limits of habitat restoration and the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan. Aimed at professionals in the landscaping and gardening community, the public is also welcome. At Germanna Community College’s Daniel Technology Center, Culpeper. Registration is $50, which includes lunch. Register on the event’s webpage. For more information, go the website or call Carol Heiser at 804-367-6989.

Woods and Wildlife Conference (Feb. 20, 8:30–4:40): Registration is filling up fast for this excellent annual event hosted by a dozen commonwealth agencies and nonprofit organizations, with support from almost a dozen others. This all-day conference for owners of large or small tracts of land is a virtual one-stop/first-stop for learning about woods, wildlife, and other natural resources and explores myriad forest issues relevant to woodland owners. At Germanna Community College’s Daniel Technology Center, Culpeper. For more information, go to the event’s webpage, or contact Adam Downing at 540-948-6881 or adowning@vt.edu.

Watershed Course (Wednesdays, Mar. 30-Apr. 27, 7:30–9 p.m.): Registration is open for “You and Your Watershed in Rappahannock County,” offered by RappFLOW through RappU. The course focuses on how well our local watersheds are protected. According to the course description, students will assess strengths and vulnerabilities of streams, ponds, stream buffers, land cover, slopes, erosion, zoning, easements, driveways, wells, septic tanks, road/stream intersections, water quality and Shenandoah National Park lands. The course includes how to take advantage of information, technical and financial assistance and other resources from Virginia’s conservation agencies, Trout Unlimited, local landscape experts and others. Two daytime field walks are included. At the Rappahannock County Library (4 Library Rd., Washington, VA). Registration is $10. For more information, or to register, go to the course’s page at RappU or call 540-987-0513.

Tree Seedling Sale: The Culpeper Soil & Water Conservation District has revived its tree-seedling sale. The CSWCD is taking orders throughout the winter, with April delivery expected. Species that are available are redbud, dogwood, red maple, persimmon, northern red oak and eastern white pine. Seedlings are $5.50 for five trees (one species). Tree tubes and rain barrels are also available. For more information, contact Stephanie DeNicola-Turner at 540-825-8591 or stephanied@culpeperswcd.org.

Virginia Working Landscapes Annual Meeting (Mar. 10, 6–8 p.m.): VWL is a program convened by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) “to promote the conservation of native biodiversity and encourage the sustainable use of working landscapes through research, education and community engagement,” according to the VWL website. Featured at the meeting: information about how to get involved in conservation and citizen science in the region; events, talks, and more from conservation organizations around Virginia; a chance to meet service providers and natural resource professionals that can help answer questions about land management and conservation; networking with other landowners and land managers to share best practices and ideas; results from the VWL grassland biodiversity surveys from 2015; VWL’s plans for 2016 and how to get involved. At SCBI (1500 Remount Rd, Front Royal). For more information, see “Upcoming Events” on the VWL website home page.

Rappahannock Plant Sale (Apr. 30, 9–3): This is the perfect time to start planning for your garden. As in past 14 years, this sale has a wide selection of native and cultivated plants offered by local growers. But some great plants, discuss plants with experts and your plant-loving neighbors, swap gardening stories and enjoy some refreshments. At Waterpenny Farm, U.S. Route 211, Sperryville, rain or shine.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 340 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”