Research Profile | Bethany Wilkinson | Marine Science & Climate Change

"Microplastics are a newer, emerging environmental issue across the planet and it is now evident from this research there is a microplastic problem right on the public’s doorstep in Gibraltar. "
19th January 2022
Bethany Wilkinson, one of our Master in Marine Science and Climate Change students, spoke to us about her research project which assessed the abundance and characterisation of microplastics across the beaches in Gibraltar

Describe your MSc project?

The main aim of my research was to be the first large scale, in-depth analysis of the state of microplastics (MPs) in Gibraltar. MPs are plastic items smaller than 5 mm and are found in ecosystems and beaches throughout the world, with nowhere exempt from their pollution. MPs are damaging for marine life as ingestion can lead to internal issues and can accumulate up the food web.
The beaches around Gibraltar were surveyed through attainable methodology that can be replicated by Citizen Scientists or charities. Ten jars of sediment were collected from the highest tideline on the beach and 10 jars from the seabed at waist depth. 120 samples were collected across six beaches, three inside the bay on the west side and three outside on the east. The samples were sieved back in the laboratory and analysed for microplastics. Every beach surveyed was found to have microplastics present, however, not at an equal rate. Of the 312 microplastics were discovered, 188 of them were found within the sand at Camp Bay. After forensic investigation two reasons were discovered as the source: the playpark’s rubber flooring and the yellow and blue paint covering all of Camp Bay’s concrete. Both sources of pollution at Camp Bay are due to mismanagement of the area and require changes to prevent the MP problem continuing. After Camp Bay, the most polluted beaches were Western Beach, Little Bay and Eastern Beach with 32 to 37 microplastic items present at each location.
Microplastic abundance and characterisation across beaches in Gibraltar

What type of research has it involved and what skills have you learned?

As a newer area of research there was not one standardised sampling method and this project involved a literature review and comparison of methodology that had been used previously to research microplastics, which in turn was adapted to create my own methods to use in Gibraltar. The methods were tested through a pilot study, concerns were identified and then changes were made before implementation throughout all the beaches. The research involved sampling days out in the field, collecting the sediment and then analysis back in the laboratory at the university. The analysis aspect of the research took the longest amount of time and quality control stages were added to make sure all microplastics were found and to account for bias created from human error.
I learned many skills throughout my project, including assessing large quantities of studies and completing a critical literature review. Also maintaining a high level of quality assurance to ensure none of the samples were contaminated or items of microplastics were missed which would impact the results.

Why should the public know about this topic?

Microplastics are a newer, emerging environmental issue across the planet and it is now evident from this research there is a microplastic problem right on the public’s doorstep in Gibraltar. As with most environmental issues raising awareness and education around the problem benefits solutions. Informing the public of the MP issue in Gibraltar, especially in Camp Bay, will hopefully create pressure on the government to make changes and create changes. Raising awareness around MPs in general also changes the public’s perception on single use plastics, aiding in their reduction, stopping use of single use plastics or plastic items altogether, preventing littering and encouraging participation in beach cleans.

What is the wider impact of your research?

Creation of a baseline of data of microplastics in Gibraltar that can be continually assessed throughout different seasons every year, creating trends and long-term analysis. Using a methodology that can be implemented by citizens or charities worldwide, at a low cost and without need for expertise. Whilst raising awareness around the pollution levels in Camp and Little Bay due to the painting of the surfaces and the children’s play park flooring that can lead to management strategies to eliminate these problems and raising awareness of MP pollution in Gibraltar.
From ‘field-to-lab’: Graphical summary of microplastic (MP) study depicting relative abundance of MPs found.

Comments from Head of School

Despite the numerous protocols, survey and methods to quantify microplastics in coastal environments – there is a global consensus that the issue of microplastics is an ever-increasing problem and seems to continue unabated. This research project aimed to provide a consolidated, standardised and streamlined, easy-to-employ protocol for all to use, as none worldwide exists. Bethany employed her method to provide the first comprehensive categorisation of microplastic contamination across six beaches in Gibraltar.
By identifying and categorising microplastics, she was able to identify ‘source to sink’ pathways and provide recommendations to marine management to mitigate further microplastic contamination.
As a result of this project Bethany has secured an internship with an environmental NGO in the Maldives.
  • MSc

    Master in Marine Science & Climate Change

    Designed and delivered by expert academics and scientists, this full or part-time interdisciplinary programme blends theoretical study with practical, field-based work. You will cover specialist subject areas and gain the skills required to tackle the complex issues associated with the sustainable development of marine ecosystems.[...]

    1 Year

    No Placement option

    Full Time

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