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AMAP’s Expert Group on Litter and Microplastics is developing the first monitoring plan that is looking for plastics in the entire ecosystem

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) has a mandate to monitor and assess the status and trends of contaminants in the Arctic. Plastics therefore has been on the Working Group’s agenda for some time. However, recently AMAP decided to step up its efforts on the plastic issue and established an Expert Group on Litter and Microplastics.

The Expert Group currently is working on developing a comprehensive monitoring plan and technical monitoring guidelines for litter and microplastics in the Arctic. It will be the first time that all parts of an Arctic ecosystem are examined for traces of litter and microplastics – from the air to the bottom of the sea.

The Expert Group’s Co-Chairs Eivind Farmen and Jennifer Provencher together with Jan Rene Larsen from the AMAP Secretariat tell us more about AMAP’s new focus area.

What triggered AMAP to set up a Litter and Microplastic Expert Group?

Jan Rene Larsen: AMAP already had released an assessment on Chemicals of Emerging Arctic Concern when the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group published the Desktop Study on Marine Litter including Microplastics in the Arctic in 2019. PAME followed up on its desktop study by developing a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic, and it was decided that AMAP should support this effort.

Monitoring marine litter and microplastics in the environment will be one way to evaluate how successful the regional action plan is. So, AMAP established the Expert Group on Litter and Microplastic in spring 2019 and we consider this effort a good example of cooperation between the Arctic Council Working Groups, especially between AMAP, PAME and the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF).

However, it is important to note that while the action plan is focused on the marine environment, our Expert Group’s scope is broader. We are also interested in monitoring and assessing the occurrence and effects of litter and microplastics in rivers and lakes, on land, and in the air.

What are the effects of litter and microplastics, and why is a monitoring plan needed?

Eivind Farmen: We are building on the findings of PAME‘s desktop study. We know that litter and plastic debris for example is harmful for birds, turtles and whales, as they ingest large parts of plastic or get entangled in it. Yet, in regard to microplastics, the effects are much less known. One aspect that is common to both microplastics and litter is that the substances accumulate in the environment and are very persistent to degradation – and that in itself grants the need for a monitoring plan.

Jan Rene Larsen: We will try to distinguish between the direct physical effects of litter and microplastics and their chemical effects. Chemical substances can either adhere to plastic items or can be released when they degrade. Whereas AMAP in past assessments has addressed contaminants like mercury or persistent organic pollutants (POPs), the effects of plastics are a cocktail of physical and chemical effects.

What is the current status of litter and microplastics monitoring in the Arctic?

Eivind Farmen: I don’t think there is a lot of ongoing microplastic monitoring in the Arctic at the present. We do have some one-off research studies, some litter monitoring on beaches but the efforts are fragmented and not coordinated.

Jennifer Provencher: The best way to describe it would be: opportunistic. There are some excellent efforts on national level, for example the shoreline work under the OSPAR convention and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the efforts by the seabird community. But these efforts are only looking at two compartments of the environment, while our aim is to provide guidance on 11 compartments where plastics can occur. If I was a high school teacher grading our combined current efforts on plastics monitoring in the Arctic, I would write: needs improvement.

What are some of the benefits of a comprehensive monitoring plan?

Jennifer Provencher: Comprehensive monitoring of anything is the basis for informed decision making. We have a timely advantage in relation to litter and microplastics as people are making policy decisions on this issue right now. So, the more coordinated and comprehensive we can be in our monitoring, the better we can feed in to those decisions and policies.

Eivind Farmen: I would also add that our work contributes to future assessments, such as the ones prepared by AMAP on contaminants in the Arctic. In order to do good assessments, you will need comprehensive monitoring that covers different compartments and has a wide geographical spread.

11 compartment to finding litter and microplastics

AMAP’s Expert Group has outlined 11 compartments where they expect to find litter and microplastics:

  • Air
  • Water (marine and freshwater)
  • Sediments (marine and freshwater)
  • Seabed
  • Terrestrial soils
  • Ice and snow
  • Beaches
  • Invertebrates (both those swimming in the water and those living on the seafloor)
  • Fish
  • Birds
  • Mammals

You are developing a tool box of approaches –why is a toolbox needed rather than just one or two indicators?

Jennifer Provencher: The Arctic is very diverse. Take for example two locations at 69 degrees North, one in Canada and one in Norway. In Norway, there is the city of Tromsø with street lights, garbage pick-ups, a university, shopping malls and bars, whereas at 69 degrees North in Canada you will find Lancaster Sound with two small communities with around 80 people each. There are no busses, bars, or roads.

While you can do water sampling in Tromsø in the middle of the winter due to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, the closest open water in Resolute Bay in winter is hundreds of kilometers away. So, you need a tool box in order to be inclusive. We want people both in Tromsø and Resolute Bay to be able to contribute and participate in the work – and to benefit from it.

It is about covering all the different types of communities in the Arctic and making sure that everyone can participate. They can take local action and all the data collectively is going to allow people to take action on a national and pan-Arctic level.

Eivind Farmen: We will also admit that some of the tools we are developing are more advanced than others. For instance, to collect sediment samples from the ocean floor you need big boats and grabs, whereas sampling litter from a beach can be done by local people without special equipment. We need – to speak in the terminology of a toolbox – both spanners and wrenches to enable us to detect litter and microplastics in all compartments.

How is this approach similar or different to other groups undertaking litter and microplastics work currently?

Jennifer Provencher: There are a lot of groups right now undertaking litter and microplastics work: the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and within the UN Environment Programme – to name a few. Most of these groups have focused on water, beaches or shorelines, and they have chosen those for good reasons and specific purposes. What is different with our approach are the 11 compartments, the entire ecosystems approach. This is the first time that a group is looking at all the places where you can find litter and microplastics in a region.

Eivind Farmen: In many ways, we work similarly to these other groups and there are many of our experts that contribute to both our work and that of the other groups.

Jan Rene Larsen: And this has really been a strength. We build on existing work and expertise, and the fact that experts in our group are so active in other initiatives has brought a lot of information into our group.

Northern gannets building nests with the remains of ghost nets on the Lofoten Islands, Norway (Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Jennifer Hülskötter (CC-BY 4.0) )

Going forward: who will be involved in monitoring litter and microplastics?

Jennifer Provencher: We have purposefully discussed and tried to include indicators that a wide range of people can contribute to. While some of the compartments, for example the seabed, require very specialized equipment, the majority can be widely implemented by a variety of people. So, the short answer to the question is: almost anyone because there’s a lot of citizen science that can be done for litter and microplastics.

Eivind Farmen: I think in Norway, it is mostly going to be local people, fishermen, research institutes, universities, as well as environmental authorities and agencies.

Jan Rene Larsen: The way the work is organized within AMAP is that the actual monitoring work is a national responsibility. Each country has its own organization, plans and structures. AMAP’s work is to harmonize the monitoring approach and then, once data is collected and analyzed, to develop pan-Arctic assessments.

What are the next steps for your EG?

Jennifer Provencher: This work is very much ongoing. We have spent a year working on a guidance document and those technical documents will need to be updated in a couple of years. As data continues to roll in from around the world, the guidance is going to change. The next step, which still is under discussion, is to move to the effects of litter and microplastics, the biological impact of the chemicals associated with the plastic. Once we have reviewed the effects, we will discuss suitable indicators and only then are we able to write a full assessment.

Eivind Farmen: This new monitoring effort will also require financial funding from the Arctic States. Although we have designed the plan to make it as cost effective as possible, it takes additional resources to coordinate the microplastic monitoring with other ongoing efforts.