Scientists studying the effect of plastic contamination in the Mediterranean have noticed considerable pollution hotspots not far from Malta.

“On our way here from the East we observed spots of concentrated floating plastic. Several times we also had to pull out of the sea the nets we are using to collect samples because they turned black with pollution,” Gabriel Gorsky, scientific director of the expedition, said on board the Tara yesterday.

“At times, it was disgusting to see plankton surfacing and sticking to patches of asphalt. The eastern side of Malta is fairly polluted,” he added.

Tara Expeditions is a French non-profit organisation active since 2003 in favour of the environment. Its research boat was in Malta five years ago on a mission to collect data about plankton. She sailed in again on Thursday as part of a seven-month expedition during which scientists are trying to better understand the impact of plastic on the ecosystem. They are collecting from the surface of the sea samples of plastic remnants no larger than five centimetres, which they will then quantify by size and weight.

They are also identifying the types of plastic and organic pollutants that stick to the plastic and the microbes living on the same plastic.

Prof. Gorsky said that, once plastic entered the digestive system of small fish, some toxins remained within the creature’s body, which was, in turn, eaten by larger fish that might end up on our dishes at the end of the food chain.

The expedition kicked off in May in Toulon, France and has taken them across the Mediterranean to Greece, Beirut, Cyprus and Malta and will now proceed to other countries, among them Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Barcelona.

They work in collaboration with universities across the globe, including Germany, France, Italy, Spain, the US and Malta.

Tara’s visit to Malta was very important according to marine biologist and university lecturer Alan Deidun who said the island’s marine area within its territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the shore) was 14 times as large as its terrestrial space.

As part of the EU, Malta had onerous obligations related to marine directives and, yet, the island did not have its own research vessel and funds to collect data.

Through their expedition, the scientists are hoping to build maps of distribution of plastic in the Mediterranean. The data can then be used for comparisons within studies and to encourage politicians to take a stand on reducing the consumption of plastic.

Half of the plastic produced for consumption was used for bags, which could be easily replaced by paper bags or degradable plastic, Prof. Gorsky said.

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