Plastics And Clothing Fibers Found In Fish Guts From Indonesia And Northern California

UC Davis researchers found plastic and fibrous debris in 25 percent of fish sold in Indonesian and California markets.

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Microplastic fibers have been found throughout much of the world’s oceans. ( Betta splendens. Via M.Danny25 /Wikipedia
John Virata

Here is some bad news for the world’s oceans and the fish that live in it. According to a study by University of California, Davis researchers, about 25 percent of wild caught food fish from markets in California and Indonesia contained man made trash in their guts, mostly plastic materials and fibrous materials from clothing. In 2011, FishChannel reported on a study that said washing machine wastewater that ends up in the ocean contained polyester and acrylic material that was smaller than the head of a pin.

plastic in fish
UC Davis researchers found plastic and fibrous debris in 25 percent of fish sold in Indonesian and California markets. Photo by Dale Trockel

The study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, is the first direct link to plastic and man made debris to the fish that end up on your dinner plates.

“It’s interesting that there isn’t a big difference in the amount of debris in the fish from each location, but in the type — plastic or fiber,” said lead author Chelsea Rochman, a David H. Smith postdoctoral fellow in the Aquatic Health Program at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “We think the type of debris in the fish is driven by differences in local waste management.”

In California, for example, 80 percent of the debris found in the guts of the fish sampled were clothing fibers, while all of the man made materials found in the guts of fish captured in Indonesia was plastic material, and not a single strand of clothing fiber was found in any of the Indonesian fish.

A total of 76 fish were sampled from fish markets in Makassar, Indonesia, and 64 fish were sampled from Half Moon Bay and Princeton in California.

“Indonesia has some of the highest marine life richness and biodiversity on Earth, and its coastal regions — mangroves, coral reefs and their beaches — are just awash in debris,” said co-author Susan Williams, a professor with the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. Williams has been in Indonesia for the last few years working on marine projects for the university. “You have the best and the worst situation right in front of you in Indonesia.”

Indonesia, which is part of the Coral Triangle,  doesn’t have the waste managements systems in place like those in the United States, and large amounts of plastic material are just tossed onto the beach and end up in the ocean. This is compounded by a lack of purified drinking water, which forces many Indonesians to drink bottled water, the report said.

In California, most clothing is cleaned via washing machines and dryers. The gray water produced from these systems end up in the treatment facilities that are unable to filter out the huge amounts of fiber materials that separate from clothing during the wash cycle. These are the clothing fibers that end up in the ocean and then into the bellies of food fish that are caught for human consumption.

The scientists stress that the fibers and plastic were found in the guts of fish, and unless you are eating the fish whole, like some fish are eaten in Indonesia, there hasn’t yet been evidence of detrimental effects from eating these fish. Scientists are testing whether plastic and these fibers can transfer into the meat of fish.


John B. Virata has been keeping fish since he was 10 years old. He currently keeps an 80 gallon cichlid tank, a 20 gallon freshwater community tank and a 29 gallon BioCube with a Percula clown, a huge blue green chromis, and a firefish all in his kitchen, and a 55 gallon FOWLR tank with a pair of Ocellaris clowns, two blue green chromis, a six line wrasse, a peppermint shrimp, assorted algae and a few aiptasia anemones in his living room.

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