Scientists Survey Fiordland Waters For Microplastics & Marine Invasive Species

On Saturday October 16th, 2021, an interdisciplinary team
of marine scientists returned from a week-long research
expedition and sampling cruise in Fiordland / Te Moana o
Atawhenua onboard MV Strannik of Strannik Ocean Voyages
sailing out of Milford Sound.

The work involved
surface tows using a manta trawl for microplastics and a
modified cruising speed net to collect eDNA (environmental
DNA) samples, and oceanographic measures of temperature,
salinity, turbidity and depth. Searching for microplastics
is a world first in Fiordland, and as Aotearoa New Zealand
is dealing with more marine invasive species, this work will
also support the detection of opportunistic invasive species
such as the nuisance macroalga Undaria

Surveys took place in Milford Sound,
Bligh Sound, George Sound and the coastal area of the Tasman
Sea in favourable weather. The overall objective was to
identify a baseline as nobody has ever monitored these
waters for microplastics, and there is lack of information
on potential marine pests in that area. The team was
composed of scientists from Blue Cradle, the Cawthron
Institute, the Institute for Environmental Scientific
Research (ESR), the University of Otago, and hosted a
teacher from Fiordland College, recommended by Fiordland
Marine Guardians. Working under two Ministry of Business,
Innovation and Employment (MBIE) funded Endeavour
Programmes, Marine Biosecurity Toolbox and Aotearoa Impacts
and Mitigation of Microplastics (AIM2), this expedition was
the second coordinated under Blue Cradle’s overarching
objective to make these expeditions more accessible and
inclusive for the community, working with schools, iwi and
other relevant institutions.

Blue Cradle had organised
several outreach events for this expedition, in close
coordination with the local community in Te Anau, but
unfortunately due to Covid level 2 restrictions all these
events have been cancelled. Future outreach is planned later
in 2022, to showcase early results and provide ocean
literacy educational opportunities for the local

James Nikitine, Founding Director of the
Blue Cradle Foundation: “Te Moana o Atawhenua / Fiordland
is a truly unique and magical place, a treasure not only for
Aotearoa New Zealand but for the world. Knowing that we can
impact the marine environment here, by our human actions, is
a scary thought. Microplastics are definitely in the ocean,
and the water in the ocean circulates a lot. This mission is
fundamental to find out if they’re in Fiordland, and if
so, help understand where they come from. As for Undaria and
other marine invasives, we need to develop early warning
systems, and eDNA tools are becoming more and more easy to
use and efficient. Finally, we are committed to the
community here as we’ve been welcomed. We want to bring
this knowledge to the youth / rangatahi of the region.
We’ll be back here with early results and outreach

Dr Olga Pantos, Senior Scientist at the
Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR), and
co-lead of the national AIM2 (Aotearoa Impacts and
Mitigation of Microplastics) project joined the team to
examine the presence of microplastics in the surface

Two of the objectives of the AIM2 project are
to examine the levels of microplastics in Aotearoa’s
environments and the potential impacts that they pose. This
expedition brought those 2 things together in one place, as
one of the risks posed by marine plastics is the transport
of non-indigenous species into areas they ordinarily
wouldn’t get to if they were attached to natural materials
due to the high resistance and lightweight nature of
plastics – two of the two properties that have made plastics
so successful and pervasive in our environments. Pantos says
that “this work was of particular importance in this area
of Aotearoa which is considered remote and fairly untouched
by human activity. However, finding pieces of plastic
floating in the surface waters – just the ones we could see
with the naked eye – really brings home that there is no
ecosystem now untouched by our plastic footprint. Seeing
these pieces and then within hours seeing pods of humpback
whales playing and feeding in the same area, knowing full
well when they take a mouthful they’re also ingesting
plastics is heartbreaking”. Although some larger pieces of
plastic were seen in the samples when they were collected
the focus now is on the lab work required to determine the
levels and types of microplastics (

Dr Anastasija Zaiko and Associate
Professor Xavier Pochon, of Nelson’s Cawthron Institute
and University of Auckland, joined the expedition in their
capacity as senior researchers in the national Marine
Biosecurity Toolbox Programme.

Zaiko says the
expedition’s goals align perfectly with the Marine
Biosecurity Toolbox’s mission to “develop science-based
tools and technologies that empower governments, tangata
whenua, industry and the public to effectively mitigate
biosecurity risks”. During this cruise, our team managed
to assemble a ‘floating laboratory’ enabling the near
real-time analysis of environmental DNA samples that
included the targeted detection of Undaria pinnatifida as
well as the DNA sequencing of entire marine communities to
get a snapshot of the biodiversity present in these fiords.
Luckily, Undaria was not detected in the subset of samples
analysed onboard. We are now taking a closer look at the
sequencing data to verify whether this or other
non-indigenous species occur in the studied area. Our future
aspiration is to hand over the operationalized molecular
toolkit for routine marine pest diagnostics by biosecurity
practitioners, tangata whenua, students and environmental
enthusiasts in the

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