Sarah Weatherbee The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Plenty of pollution floats on the surface of Lebanon’s coastal waters, visible to all who stop for a seaside stroll.

But the scientists aboard the Tara Méditerranée, a boat newly arrived in Beirut’s Marina, are focused on the invisible pollution, in the form of microplastics, that may be harming Lebanon’s marine ecology and human health.The expedition seeks to assess the quantity of microplastics in the Mediterranean and to study their effect on marine ecology.

“Right now, it is impossible to say, but we think with a long time there will be some consequences. The microplastics are totally digestible, but the pollutants on them and the bacteria on it stay in the organisms,” said scientist and engineer Amanda Elineau, aboard the boat.

Microplastics are what is left when plastic bottles, grocery bags, laundry detergent and skin-exfoliating cosmetics have broken down. A 2009 study showed that the Eastern Mediterranean is particularly vulnerable to their accumulation due to “the combination of a densely populated coastline and shipping in coastal waters and a lack of dispersion of plastics because of limited tidal flow or water circulation.”

The tiny particles, a magnet for bacteria and organic pollutants, are consumed by plankton and work their way up through the food chain. Marine animals eat the microplastics, mistaking them for food. Consequently, they accumulate in the flesh of fish that end up on grocery store shelves and restaurant tables for human consumption.

The Tara Méditerranée venture is a project of Tara Expeditions, a French non-profit organization that has studied the environmental impact of pollution since 2003. The 60-meter schooner arrived Tuesday as part of an eastern Mediterranean tour to test the waters for microplastics. Scientific partners include the Oceanography Laboratory of Villefranche-sur-Mer, the French National Center for Scientific research and the University of Michigan.

The boat has nets that are designed to collect plastic debris from the water’s surface.

Anthony Ouba, a Lebanese Ph.D. student, is among the scientists aboard the ship who will prepare water samples for analysis.

“The first step is to understand their spatial distribution,” Ouba said of microplastics, “Also, the quality, which organisms live on it, and how [plastic] fragmentation was made.”

Tara scientists say that microplastic impact hasn’t been fully explored in Lebanon, or in the rest of the Eastern Mediterranean. During this mission, they will divide their time between data collection at sea and information-sharing on shore.

“There is little that we know about the sea. Given the importance of the sea for us for our lifestyle, this is very important, to get more information about what is in our ecosystem,” said Roman Trouble, secretary-general of Tara Expeditions.

“Turning this around with kids is very important because people can do something; it takes little time, energy and investment to explain to them. They understand very fast, way faster than adults,” he said.

Tara Méditerranée’s weeklong stop in Lebanon includes an informative exhibit on ocean ecosystems at Beirut Marina and tours of the boat for children. Trouble emphasized that educating the young generation was essential for reversing human environmental impact.

The team of scientists plans to meet with representatives from Lebanon’s coastal communities, and from government ministries, to inform them of microplastic presence along the coast. At the end of the Eastern Mediterranean tour, Tara Expedition’s research team will compile and distribute their findings to the countries where their studies have taken place.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 07, 2014, on page 2.

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