Media Coverage: RTE- 10 Things to Know About… Water

In August 2015, I was asked to be part of a programme on RTE 1 called 10 Things to Know About…Water. It was Episode 5 in a 6 part series showcasing Irish research. #LoveIrishResearch.

I had a great time filming with Kathriona Devereux on Ballyloughane beach and in the image analysis lab at GMIT.



On Ballyloughane Beach, Galway with Kathriona Devereux       Image:@10Things_ToKnow


The show can be watched in full here.

I moved to Galway three years ago to study microplastics and their distribution and implications on the marine environment, mainly because there hadn’t been any studies previous to the research that we were going to do’… ‘I went to sea on the Celtic Explorer for a few months and we found microplastics in almost every sample that we took at sea. In my research we looked at a group of fish called mesopelagic fish and we found microplastic in 11% of the fish that we studied. We took out their whole digestive tract and dissolved it, so we knew that whatever we found in our sample was going to have come from inside the animal’… ‘We did find microplastic in commercially sourced fish from previous studies we’ve done. In the English Channel, we found 36% of the fish we looked at to have microplastics in their stomachs’… ‘It’s a very new area of research, 10 years ago we didn’t know that microplastics existed in the marine environment’… ‘I think we need to work a lot more on legislation and more on recycling and reusing plastics in trying to get away from single-use plastics and plastics that aren’t necessarily required in our day-to-day lives’. 



Marine Anthropogenic Litter

Originally posted on 13/8/2015 on

Over the year I have been putting together a chapter to contribute towards a Springer published Open Access book “Marine Anthropogenic Litter”. The book is an expansive summary of the state of knowledge on all aspects of marine anthropogenic litter, including the distribution and biological implications of plastics and microplastics, as well as the socio-economic implications.

© Springer

A few months ago I received my copy of Marine Anthropogenic Litter. The book has been made available through open access, which means you can download the whole book, or separate chapters at the links below.

The book was published in June 2015, and I have enjoyed dipping into each of the chapters to read the other authors contributions. The editors, Melanie Bergmann and Lars Gutow from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and Michael Klages from the University of Gothenburg’s Sven Lovén Centre for Marine Sciences, brought together a huge variety of experts to contribute.

The book consists of 5 sections: A historical synopsis of marine litter research, abiotic aspects of litter pollution, biological and ecological implications of marine litter, and microplastics.

I’ve tried to summarise each of the 16 chapter in two sentences and if you click on the title it will take you to the whole chapter on the springer website.

I had a great time contributing to this book (Chapter 10!), and hope you enjoy reading it.

Published by Amy Lusher


Chapter summaries

1. A brief History of Marine Litter Research. Ryan.

As the title says, the history of marine litter research and the rapid development of the topic and key conferences. From the first reports of entanglement and ingestion in the 1960s to the current focus on microplastics and associated chemicals transferring to the marine food web.

2. Global Distribution, Composition and Abundance of Marine Litter. Galgani et al.

Describes marine litter, primarily plastics, global abundance and composition. Plastics have been recorded on beaches, floating on the sea surface and accumulating in the deep sea.

3. Persistence of Plastic Litter in the OceansAndrady

Describes the physical and chemical process involved in the breakdown of plastics in the marine environment.

4. Deleterious Effects of Litter on Marine Life. Kühn et al.

A summary of the implications and effects of marine litter on wildlife, including entanglement and ingestion.

5. The Complex Mixture, Fate and Toxicity of Chemicals Associated with Plastic Debris in the Marine Environment. Rochman

Plastics are more than just a mechanistic threat to marine animals, this chapter looks the toxicity of chemicals and their health implications.

6. Marine Litter as Habitat and Dispersal Vector. Kiessling et al.

This chapter looks at how plastics facilitate the movement of marine organisms which colonise floating material, including invasive species.

7. Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Sources, Consequences and Solutions. Thompson

A synopsis of microplastic research to date.

8. Methodology Used for the Detection and Identification of Microplastics—A Critical Appraisal. Löder et al.

A critical appraisal of the research methods used when identifying microplastics in the field and marine biota.

9. Sources and Pathways of Microplastics to Habitats. Browne

An outline of the primary and secondary sources of microplastics

10. Microplastics in the Marine Environment: Distribution, Interactions and Effects. Lusher.

The global distribution and environmental impacts of microplastics.

11.Modeling the Role of Microplastics in Bioaccumulation of Organic Chemicals to Marine Aquatic Organisms. A Critical Review. Koelmans

A critical evaluation of the transfer of environmental contaminants to marine organisms using a modelling approach.

12.Nanoplastics in the Aquatic Environment. Critical Review. Koelmans et al.

A summary of nano-plastics.

13. Micro- and Nano-plastics and Human Health. Galloway

A summary of our current knowledge of how chemicals associated with plastics may affect human health.

14. The Economics of Marine Litter. Newman et al.

Describes the economic instruments around the world which are used to reduce litter inputs to the sea.

15. Regulation and Management of Marine Litter. Chen

Regulatory measures which are used to manage marine litter around the world.

16. The Contribution of Citizen Scientists to the Monitoring of Marine Litter. Hidalgo-Ruz et al.

A discussion on how public awareness and citizen scientists can be utilised to support global research of marine litter.

Research: Marine Mammals and Plastics

Originally posted on 16/2/2015 on


… “When marine mammals strand, the present a unique opportunity to obtain insights into the ecology”….. (Lusher et al. 2015).

It’s not uncommon to see reports on the news and the web about the marine mammals stranding on coastlines around the world. In the most part, their deaths are associated to natural causes. However, in many cases their deaths are attributed to marine debris, specifically large plastic items that have been ingested, caused blockages, malnutrition, starvation and eventually death. Regardless of the route of entry to the marine environment, discarded plastic can be accidently ingested by animals mistaking it for prey.

A quick Google search lead me to these reports:

It is not only large plastic items that could be present in the digestive tracts of these animals. As part of my PhD research and collaborative work with Dr. Gema Hernandez-Milian from University College Cork (UCC) we have been investigating methods for the identification of microplastics in stranded animals on Irish shores.

We were fortunate enough (not fortunate for the animals), to have three True’s beaked whales (Mesoplodon mirus) strand on the west and north coast of Ireland within two weeks of each other. A mother and calf in Co. Donegal, and an adult female in Connemara, Co. Galway.

True's beaked whale stranded in Co. Galway, May 2013

True’s beaked whale stranded in Co. Galway, May 2013 (Image: Ian O’Connor)

It is important to note that strandings of True’s beaked whales in Ireland are very rare, with only 13 record to date, check out the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) for more details.

A laboratory procedure was developed, to prevent contamination and to search effectively for microplastics in our samples. In short, we looked at each stomach separately, and divided the intestines into 20 equal sections. Rinsing the samples through stacked sieves, we were able to remove remains of prey, for dietary analysis, and the retained material was digested to leave non-biological material.

Any items remaining following digestion were visually analysed under a microscope, and a sub-sample were retained for FTIR analysis to find out which polymer new were looking at. For more information on this technique, read the methodology section of Lusher et al. 2013.

We found microplastics throughout the digestive tract (stomach and intestines) one female whale. We also identified macro plastic items in both the adult whales. The calf had no sign of plastics or food, but did have milk, which suggests it was still feeding from the mother.

Diagram of the stomach of True’s beaked whale (Image: Lusher et al. 2015)

As we are not vets, the cause of death could not be determined. The levels of plastic found did not appear to have caused any significant negative effects on the individuals.

To read more about the study click here. Or you can contact me for a copy of the PDF:

We are carrying out this work on cetaceans stranded in Ireland, so keep an eye out for future research.

Dr. Simon Berrow from IWDG and GMIT was interviewed on TodayFM about a killer whale stranding in Co. Waterford a the beginning of the month. He discusses the work we have been doing form 11. 40 mins on-wards. Take a listen here.


Published by Amy Lusher

Oceans of Plastic

Originally posted on 2/8/2014 on


At least once a week a news report will mention the occurrence of plastic waste in our oceans, such as the LEGO pieces washing up on Cornish beaches (BBC News). Beaches might be end-points for larger plastic waste, but what about those that are trapped by ocean currents and circulating the globe? What about the plastic we can’t see, or need the aid of microscope count?

Cutlass on a beach (C) Tracey Williams

A recent study conducted by research from the University of Cadiz, Spain, and the University of Western Australia published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences set out to describe the levels of  plastic pollution around the globe. This study looks as 3,070 samples which have been collected worldwide, including previously published data as well data collected as part of the 2010 Malaspina Science Expedition.

Researchers detected plastics in 88% of samples of the ocean surface during the Malaspina Expedition in 2010 and it demonstrates that the five accumulation gyres in the oceanic surface circulation match with trends of plastics debris. The concentration of plastics ranged over 4 orders of magnitude in the open ocean, matching areas of convergence and divergence in the ocean. They estimated tat the amount of plastic in surfaces waters of the open ocean was between 7,000 and 35,000 tons.

What is interesting about the study is that, yes they identified plastics in the 5 gyres (check out the NGO with the same name), but since the 1980s we have seen plastic production quadruple, and we would think that with all of the wave and wind action, a lot more microplastics would be floating at the sea surface. In reality, a whole lot more particle were predicated than what were actually found.

There appears to be 5 distinct areas where plastic accumulates :

  • Pacific Ocean: to the west of the United states (AKA the North Pacific Central Gyre-add link)
  • Pacific Ocean: to the west of South America
  • Atlantic Ocean: between USA and Africa
  • Atlantic Ocean: to the East of southern Africa
  • Indian Ocean: to the west of Southern Africa
Originally from Cozar

(c) Cozar, University of Cadiz, Spain


Although these areas tend to receive the most research, there are other areas of the ocean are likely to have plastics as well. From my own research we are finding microplastics throughout the Irish marine and coastal environment (watch this space – publication coming soon).

Nearly 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year, worldwide we do our best to recycle and reuse a large quantity of this, but it has been estimated about 10% (by mass) will eventually find its way into the marine environment. Once there is can be transported on currents, slowly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces (processes include wave action and UV degradation). Microplastics are also input directly through the use of cosmetics, air blasting and loss of pre-production pellets at sea.

 It’s not just these floating garbage patches that accumulate plastics, they only appear to account for 1 percent of what is expected to be found. So where could this plastic have gone? Plastics could end up sinking to the sea floor, washing up on beaches, or interacting with marine biota (take a look at my previous posts about this). If ingestion is the case, and chemical effects are associated with microplastics, this could have wide-ranging environmental impact, because so many different species living on the earth live in or eat from the oceans. It might even find its way onto our plates.

I guess the step forward is to continue looking for the sources and sinks of microplastics in the marine environment, to begin to understand their pathways around the globe and their eventual fate in the marine environment, be it interacting with marine organisms of burying deep in sediment.

What is known is that microplastics are certainly ubiquitous in the marine environment, and they will be there for many decades and centuries to come.

Published  by Amy Lusher


 If you want to read the full articles from PNAS you can access it here. I have copied the abstract below:

There is a rising concern regarding the accumulation of floating plastic debris in the open ocean. However, the magnitude and the fate of this pollution are still open questions. Using data from the Malaspina 2010 circumnavigation, regional surveys, and previously published reports, we show a worldwide distribution of plastic on the surface of the open ocean, mostly accumulating in the convergence zones of each of the five subtropical gyres with comparable density. However, the global load of plastic on the open ocean surface was estimated to be on the order of tens of thousands of tons, far less than expected. Our observations of the size distribution of floating plastic debris point at important size-selective sinks removing millimeter-sized fragments of floating plastic on a large scale. This sink may involve a combination of fast nano-fragmentation of the microplastic into particles of microns or smaller, their transference to the ocean interior by food webs and ballasting processes, and processes yet to be discovered. Resolving the fate of the missing plastic debris is of fundamental importance to determine the nature and significance of the impacts of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Authors: Andrés Cózar, Fidel Echevarría, Juan I. González-Gordillo, Xabier Irigoien, Bárbara Úbeda, Santiago Hernández-León, Álvaro Palma, Sandra Navarro, Juan García-de-Lomas, Andrea Ruiz, María L. Fernández-de-Puelles, and Carlos M. Duarte. Plastic debris in the open oceanPNAS, 2014; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1314705111


Originally posted on 20/6/2014 on


Exciting news!! We have just returned from a research cruise to the Arctic!!!

About a year ago, Amy applied for funding from EUROFLEETS2 to piggyback a research cruise in polar waters near Svalbard to look at microplastics distribution. She was successful and awarded funding for herself and another person to join the PREPARED cruise, co-ordinated by Renata Lucchi from OGS, Trieste, Italy.

So on the 4th of June we made our way to the R.V. G.O Sars, one of Norway’s Polar research vessels.

G.O. Sars (Photo: Renata Lucchi)

The aim of the PREPARED cruise was to survey the PREsent and PAst flow REgime on contourite Drifts wests of Spitsbergen. So this fitted nicely with our aims to look at microplastic distribution in relation to water currents.

The total scientist party consisted of 28 multi-national researchers and 3 technicians from Italy, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Poland, Denmark, Russia, Netherlands, Brazil (Heidi!), Croatia and England (Amy!). This was a total of 12 institutions: OGS (National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics), CNR-ISMAR (National Research Centre –  Institute of Marine Sciences: Italy), Galway-Mayo Insinuate of Technology,  Alfred Wegener Institute, University of Gothenburg, The Arctic University of Norway, Institute of Marine Research Norway, Norwegian Polar Institute, University of Bergen, Pisa University, UNIS: the university centre in Svalbard, Institute of Oceanology Polish Academy of Sciences.

Group photo: (L-R) Gianmarco, Ekaterina, Ragnheid, Sam, Ardo, Jan Sverre, Ilona, Amy, Paolo, Giulia, Stefano, Simone, Mauro, Heidi, Davide, Eli Anne, Katrine, Magdalena, Valentina, Fedrica, Caterina, Dag, Karin, Leonardo, Lorenzo, Vedrana, Renata (Photo: Renata Lucchi)

During the cruise  “Team Plastic” consisted of Heidi, Amy and Valentina (from OGS, Italy). We collected samples from underway sampling, box cores and using a manta net. Sampling was conducted over 24 hour period and we worked shifts in rotation. Working at night did not really matter, after all, this far north it was 24 hour sunlight. As we got closer to the coast we were treated to some stunning views of midnight sun over Svalbard. There was a bit of spare time for some posing in the sun!

Throughout the cruise sediment samples were collected, and CTDs taken as well as a including a 20+ metre Calipso core, you can read more here at Giulia’s blog. She was taking part as a Teacher at Sea and has documented the cruise in lots of detail. Definitely have a look if you get the chance.

“Ice Manta” taking it’s first dip in polar waters (Photo: Giulia Realdon)

Heidi cleaning up after our most disgusting plankton tow nicknamed “whale vomit” (Photo: Amy Lusher)


Data entry time!! (Photo: Renata Lucchi)

As well as our sampling, we were lucky enough to see several species of marine mammals: dolphins, whales, and plenty of bird species: Fin whales, minke whales, sperm whales, humpback whales, unidentified dolphin (high dorsal fin, black curved back…possible orca….just sayin’…..), guillemots, Arctic fulmars, puffins, arctic terns, arctic skua, glaucous gull and little auks.  We have to say special thanks for the stunning photos some of other researchers took. Here are just a few of the species we saw.

Arctic Fulmar (Photo: Sam Fredriksson)


Puffins (Photo: Sam Fredriksson)

Humpback whale (Photo: Sam Fredriksson)


Guillemot(Photo: Ardo Robijn)


Sperm whale (Photo: Renata Lucchi)


Guess the dolphin….(Photo: Renata Lucchi)

As a treat, our Chief Scientists decided to take the vessel into Hornsund. It was a beautiful evening and we had a lovely time sitting on the deck of the vessel watching whales and dolphins, there were even rumors of a polar bear climbing seen in the distance 🙂

Evening visit to Hornsund Fjord (Photo: Giulia Realdon)

We really enjoyed our time in the Arctic, we met some brilliant researchers and it was a great experience. Hopefully we can go back and repeat the sampling in the future. Time to get on with analysing our samples!!!

Media Coverage: NearFm podcast January 2014

originally posted on 30/1/2014 on

Before Christmas, we were asked to contribute to a 2-part radio podcast by Lenny Antonelli.  Ireland’s Oceans follows marine scientists to learn about the science surrounding Ireland’s coastline.

In part One, Dr. Simon Berrow, Dr. Joanne O’Brien, Marta Bolgan (PhD Researcher), and Amy Lusher talk about the research we are carrying out at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

This is what is written on the nearfm’s website:

“Ireland has over 1400 km of coastline and 220 million acres of seabed, some of it as deep as 5km. Our seas have weathered our coastlines and shaped our climate. In the distant past the freezing of these oceans created the icecaps that sculpted our land. And when the ice melted, rising seas turned our fragment of north Atlantic rock into an island. Our oceans brought the first settlers to Ireland but later carried millions away.

Despite living on this small island out on the Atlantic we don’t really think of ourselves as an oceanic country and most of us have little connection with the sea. But today Ireland is leading the way in the study of the sea, and our scientists are starting to understand how our oceans work in ever more complex and exciting ways.”

 Published by Amy Lusher

Media Coverage: Irish Times 2013

Originally posted on 16/12/2013 on


I was asked to write short piece about my research in relation to Christmas. It was to be part of the Irish Independent’s Christmas supplement, called ‘Science of Christmas’ in partnership with the Irish Research Council. So I put together a little story about how Santa was trying to minimise the impact of Christmas on planet Earth. The piece was published on 11/12/13, complete with a cheesy Christmas picture. You can find the full text below.

– Does Santa care about planet Earth?

His annual trip around the world gives Santa a great view of any changes on planet earth. Over the years, one of the things he notices is the growing amount of plastic in the sea.

Plastics have only been around since the early 1990s with the introduction of Bakelite in 1970 while mass production began in the 1040s. Now, the use of plastic for packing and in industry is widespread.

Even though many plastic items are recycled, about 10% of what is produced will end up in the ocean where it can accumulate and persist for hundreds of years.

This accumulation in the marine environment I a worrying trend and one that is being studied by scientists internationally.

Plastics build up on shorelines, in seawater and on the sea bed. Along with the unsightly impact, they also affect the environment in a number of ways. Marine animals can become entangled in them. Sea birds, marine mammals and sea turtles can swallow plastics items, both accidentally and mistakenly targeting them for food items. Ingestion can lead to malnutrition- because it can cause a blockage and decrease the nutritional intake- starvation and sometimes death.

It is not only the large items of plastic that cause problems; over time, larger plastic break down into smaller and smaller pieces, making it easier for smaller organisms to mistake them for items of prey or accidentally eat them. These microplastics are less than 5mm in size- about the size of half a grain of rice- and fish, invertebrates, such as mussels and prawns, as well as sea bird have been found to ingest them. By the way, polyester and acrylic fibres can also separate from clothes during washing and eventually find their way into the sea, while certain cosmetic products contain microplastic scrubbers. These also contribute to the accumulation of microplastics.

The effect of ingestion of microplastics still needs to be fully understood, but it has been suggested that they can cause the same damage as larger items of debris.

I am currently involved in research at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT), where I am investigating the effect of microplastics on the marine environment in the North Atlantic and Irish waters. I have spent a lot of time on the Marine Institute’s research vessel, the R.V. Celtic Explorer, to collect water and biological samples. On these trips, balloon yoga mats, washing up gloves and bottles are among the many plastic items you see bobbing around on the sea.

Wisely, Santa decided it was time to do his best to minimise the impact of Christmas on the marine environment. He told his elves to reduce the amount of plastic packaging used in his workshop, so that he leaves less unnecessary and potentially damaging packaging in home.

That, in turn, reduces the amount of rubbish to be disposed of at the end of the Christmas period. The less plastic packaging use, the less that can end up in the sea. Plastic is a convenient and widely use produced and it is impossible to eliminate it completely, however by reducing its use, Santa is doing his bit to help preserve the environment for future generations

Originally written for

 Published by Amy Lusher

PhD Sample Collection



“Are you filtering sea water again?!?!”

…That is my usual greeting from crew members when I board the research vessel to carry out sample collection. Most of my data collection is carried out at sea, and I (Amy) have just returned for another sample collection in the North Atlantic on the R.V. Celtic Explorer, Ireland’s seagoing research vessel. I’ve spent the first two months of 2014 adding a few more sampling locations for one of my PhD chapters. I am just back from a equipment trial out near the porcupine bank in the North Atlantic. In January I collected data alongside a group of scientists on Cetaceans on the Frontier 5 (   

As part of my PhD research I have been collecting water samples onboard the RV Celtic Explorer as she undertakes different research cruises in the Irish offshore waters. I have been looking at the distribution and fate of microplastics in the North Atlantic and Irish waters. Microplastics are generally buoyant and found in the top few meters of water, if they are fouled by organisms they can sink to the sea floor, however the purpose of this work focuses on the sub-surface water. Samples have been collected during 8 research cruises and I have filtered over one million litres of water (this is about the amount of water required to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool).

I won’t look at the samples until I return to shore, this way I can control the laboratory conditions.

From the samples I have collected during previous cruises, fibres are the most common type of plastic identified. The results will be used to compile a picture of microplastics in the marine environment. It is hard to say the source of the microplastics at the moment, however we will be running mass spectroscopy to work out the chemical structure of the microplastics polymers.

I have written a couple of other blog posts during previous cruises in 2013:

R.V. Celtic Explorer, Amy’s floating office
 Published by Amy Lusher



Between January 12th and 15th, 2014 the “International Workshop on Fate and Impact of Microplastics in Marine Ecosystems” took place in Plouzane, France.

There were a number of different themes at the conference related to microplastics in the marine environment including: distribution of microplastics, interactions with marine organisms, impacts on marine organisms and microplastics as a vector for biological and chemical pollutants.

There were over 30 oral presentation and over 60 posters presented by participants. The first day of the conference. Over the three days there were talks, posters, visits from local school children and plenty of delicious french food, and wine.

The workshop was attended by a diverse group of researchers, including undergraduate, masters students, PhD students, senior researchers and professors, from all around the world.


Day one of the conference was under the theme “Microplastics in the marine environment”

Researchers presented studies on 1) Occurrence and sources, 2) Microplastics ingestion by marine biota, 3) Methods development and validation, 4) Cooperation with citizens and NGOs

Take home messages:

  • Plastic is abundant and widespread all around the world
  • there are many different sources of microplastics, rivers act as an important transport pathway
  • There is a link between the amount of plastic found in the environment and the amount of plastic found in biota (Natalie Welden, research in the Clyde, Scotland)
  • New methods were proposed, but we need harmonisation and precautions must be taken when extrapolating or comparing field data on environmental contamination by microplastics.
  • Cooperation with citizens and NGOs is important to raise awareness.


Day two focused on “Impacts of microplastics on the marine life”

Take home messages

  • Microplastics can be ingested by several marine organisms and lead to deleterious effects.
  • All animals exposed to microplastics appear to ingest/absorb/take in microplastics
  • Controlled lab exposures are required to evaluate these mechanisms and the biological effects of microplastics.
  • Microplastics may impact the energy levels of some organisms, for example Arenicola marina.
  • Trophic transfer may occur in the food chain.

“Microplastics as vectors for biological and chemical contaminants”




Take home messages:

  • Plasticisers, waterborne pollutants and microorganisms can adhere to microplastics
  • Adsorption / desorption rates  onto microplastics are pollutant and polymer dependent.
  • Microplastics may modify the bioavailability, the bioaccumulation and the toxicity of waterborne pollutants in marine organisms
  • microorganisms can colonize plastic

Click here for the Book of Abstracts

Find out more about the conference hereImage

Group picture of the attendees of Micro 2014, in Plouzane, France.