Oysters are powerful little shellfish that do a lot for us, and we're making their lives difficult.
Small plastic particles known as microplastics, which are commonly found in cosmetics, are causing oysters to develop serious reproductive problems, scientists at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found in a disheartening new study.
It's not particularly new that microplastics are bad, but what's alarming is that they could affect future generations of ocean life.
The damage to oysters that ingest the plastic happens fast. Researchers tested Pacific oysters in tanks and found that oysters exposed to microplastics produced smaller eggs and less mobile sperm compared to a control group of oysters in a tank that did not contain microplastics.
After two months of eating the plastic, the oysters had 41 percent fewer offspring, which grew slower than normal.
It's not clear exactly what the plastic is doing to the oysters, but it might be interfering with their hormones or blocking their digestive systems, making it harder for them to eat food and get energy.
Microplastics end up in the ocean for a lot of reasons, but they are notably a problem in beauty products like face wash and toothpaste -- which usually go straight down the drain instead of being properly discarded, according to BeatTheMicrobead.org, an anti-microplastics campaign.
Scientists think that because the microplastic particles are about the same size as the phytoplankton oysters typically consume, they eat them without understanding that they're different.
The particles also pose a threat to other marine bivalves that feed the way oysters do.
Oysters clean water, remove nitrogen, accelerate denitrification, and provide excellent habitats for lots of fish and crustaceans -- they are some of the better bottom dwellers in our waters.
So, while the U.S. government is making slow strides to help decrease our plastic consumption -- including recently passed legislation banning microbeads -- we're still a long way away from making the ocean a happy home.
Want to help? Recycle your plastics and donate to the National Resources Defense Council to help their efforts to rid our oceans of waste.
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