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In 2018 Heriot-Watt is celebrating the Year of the Sea, a calendar of engagement that will span schools, the public, academia, industry collaborators, funders and policy makers. 

Heriot-Watt’s research often makes waves, and in 2018 we’ll be focusing on demystifying the depths of the oceans, finding ways to get more energy from the sea, examining the smallest sea creatures to the largest ocean systems, and engineering new ways to work with our seas, oceans and rivers. 

Scapa Flow mircroplastic levels match industrial UK waters

As part of the university’s Year of the Sea, Heriot-Watt University is calling for a nationwide effort to establish a baseline for microplastics in UK waters.

Sediment samples from the beaches around Scapa Flow have a similar level of microplastics to the industrialised, highly populated Clyde and Firth of Forth, research from Heriot-Watt University shows. 

Scientists from Heriot-Watt and Orkney Islands Council took over 100 sediment samples from 13 locations around the Scapa Flow, and compared them to samples from the Clyde and Firth of Forth. The results showed that microplastics were present in all 13 samples taken from Scapa Flow, despite its remoteness and Orkney’s small population.

“The fact that a relatively remote island has similar microplastic levels to some of the UK’s most industrialised waterways was unexpected, and points to the ubiquitous nature of microplastics in our water systems."

Dr Mark Hartl

Orkney Island Council will now routinely test for microplastics during its annual sandy shore monitoring programme, and Heriot-Watt University will provide analysis. 

Dr Mark Hartl, associate professor of marine biology at Heriot-Watt University, is calling for a nationwide effort to establish a baseline for microplastics in UK waters, as part of the university’s Year of the Sea. 

Dr Mark Hartl said: “Heriot-Watt has named 2018 as our Year of the Sea, and these are  surprising results to begin our research and engagement programme with. 

“The fact that a relatively remote island has similar microplastic levels to some of the UK’s most industrialised waterways was unexpected, and points to the ubiquitous nature of microplastics in our water systems. 

“We need a baseline for all of the  UK’s waters, so that we can assess the impact of government policies that aim to reduce marine pollution, such as the microbead ban. At present we only have a patchwork of data from studies in Scotland and comparable North Sea locations.

“The growing amount of data regarding plastic litter contamination in the marine environment has led to the need for understanding the related risks not only to the health of marine life, but to humans as well: microplastics are working their way into our food chain. 

“We will take further samples in Orkney in April, and scientists across Heriot-Watt’s global campuses are focusing on marine research during the Year of the Sea, from surveying Scottish seabeds to monitoring jellyfish blooms and algae blooms.” 

Jenni Kakkonen, a biologist with Orkney Islands Council’s Harbour Authority’s marine environmental unit,  conducted the sampling in Orkney with her team, collecting the sediment samples across Scapa Flow. Kakkonen is also a part-time PhD student at Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Island Technology (ICIT) on Orkney. 

Kakkonen said: “It’s important we keep an eye on the seas around us through research of this kind.  

“The sites in Scapa Flow are part of Orkney Islands Council’s sandy shore monitoring programme and during our annual surveys it was easy to collect the 3cm sand core samples for the microplastics project. 

“It came as a surprise to me as well that there was no significant difference between average particle and fibre concentrations found in the Scapa Flow, Clyde and Firth of Forth.”

This work highlights Heriot-Watt University’s commitment to marine and environmental science and is particularly timely as we enter our Year of the Sea programme.

Professor John Underhill, Heriot-Watt's Chief Scientist

Heriot-Watt's Chief Scientist, Professor John Underhill added: “The disposal and adverse impact of plastic products on the marine environment is a major and immediate challenge that faces us all.

"The research work undertaken by Professor Hartl’s team shows that microplastic pollution does not respect international borders, and is a growing problem and of particular concern to island and coastal communities like those on Orkney and Hoy.

"The work highlights Heriot-Watt University’s commitment to marine and environmental science and is particularly timely as we enter our Year of the Sea programme.”

The findings were published in Marine Pollution Bulletin and can be read in full here

Visit www.hw.ac.uk/yearofthesea for more information.