The more we know of the plastic pollution problem, the more we are realizing just how much we don’t know.
CounterMEASURE’s first phase helped fill gaps in knowledge on the origins of plastic pollution in Asian rivers. In its the second phase, the project is also turning its attention to the impacts of this plastic pollution – particularly on wildlife.
But what effect this plastic is having on species living in and around rivers is an open question. Research on the impacts of plastic pollution on riverine wildlife is very nascent. One study in 2017 reported a 100% occurrence of microplastics in coastal freshwater fish in the Rio de la Plata. Few other studies have been undertaken.
At the same time, a large number of migratory freshwater and terrestrial species are under threat. Globally, monitored populations of migratory freshwater fish have declined by an average of 76% between 1970 and 2016. In the Mekong River basin, catches of migratory freshwater fish species decreased by a whopping 78% between 2000 and 2015.
We also know that additives – including harmful ones like Bisphenol A – are added to plastics, which leak into the natural environment with plastic debris. Additionally, microplastics can absorb chemicals and heavy metals from the surrounding environment and may transport hazardous substances further. The impact on human health of ingesting toxic microplastics via wildlife like fish and shellfish is not fully understood. However, some research suggests that plastic additives are retained in marine plastics and microplastics and subsequently digested and absorbed into tissue, where it accumulates.
In this context, we need to better understand how plastic pollution is affecting freshwater and terrestrial species around rivers, including migratory species. At COP13 of the Convention on Migratory Species, held in February 2020 in India, parties adopted Decisions 13.122 – 13.125 and called for further research on this issue.
CounterMEASURE is working to fill some gaps in this understanding. By the end of the second phase in 2021, the project will have produced a report summarizing current knowledge on the impact of plastic pollution on migratory species in freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems, with a focus on the Asia and Pacific region.
The project will also assess the plastic pollution exposure of the migratory species that exist in the Mekong River Basin, such as the Mekong giant catfish, the Irrawaddy dolphin, the Bengal florican and the sarus crane, all of which are listed in CMS appendices.
With this knowledge, CounterMEASURE will prepare a monitoring protocol for the impact of plastics on fauna living in the Mekong River Basin and conduct outreach activities to raise awareness on plastic pollution and its impact on migratory species.
CounterMEASURE will be working closely with the Convention on Migratory Species in these efforts, with the ultimate aim of reducing what we don’t know about plastic pollution in rivers in Asia.