University of Hull researcher uncovering extent of plastic pollution in Vietnam

A University of Hull PhD student is leading a research project to uncover the impact of microplastic pollution on the coral reefs of the Con Dao islands in Vietnam.

Freija Mendrick’s research – which is supported in part by a grant from the National Geographic Society – will explore the volume and impact of microplastic pollution on the coral reefs of the small group of islands located in the South China Sea.

Although Con Dao is considered a pristine paradise, it is highly influenced by water flowing from the Mekong River which is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The Con Dao islands are located 90 km from the Mekong Delta – it is estimated that the Mekong River transports up to 37 thousand tonnes of plastic into the world’s oceans each year.

Freija – who is also a National Geographic Explorer – will assess coral reef health; the extent of coral cover and biodiversity; microplastic concentration levels; and determine microplastic sources. The results will provide insight into the level of threat that Con Dao reefs are under from microplastic pollution.

It is expected that less diverse reefs will be observed in areas that are more exposed to Mekong riverine discharge – which would demonstrate for the first time that the health of corals in this area are impacted by microplastic concentration.

The research is vital to help understand the patterns, concentration and impact of plastic pollution on coral reefs which are the most biodiverse of all marine ecosystems, supporting one quarter of all ocean species. The extent of coral reef cover is already decreasing globally. Corals are vulnerable to environmental change and are particularly susceptible to ingesting microplastic particles. Plastic pollution is recognised as a global environmental threat and priority area, being included in the 2030 U.N. Sustainable Development Agenda under Sustainability Development Goal 14, to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025.

To date, little research has been carried out to understand the effects of microplastics on Con Dao corals. Con Dao is a designated national park conserving a diverse range of coral reefs that support hundreds of fish species, plus several endangered species such as the green turtle and dugong. As Con Dao is adjacent to the Coral Triangle, the research will also further understanding of the extent of plastic pollution on this location. The Coral Triangle is one of the world’s most biodiverse area for coral species and the area supports 120 million people’s livelihoods.

Freija completed her field work in Vietnam earlier this month with the assistance of Jordan Burgess, Aura PhD student and local collaborators form Con Dao Dive Center. The results are anticipated to be published early 2023.

Freija Mendrik, a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant at the Energy and Environment Institute, University of Hull, and a National Geographic Explorer, said: “It was an incredible experience to be able to lead my first research project on the remote islands of Con Dao. The islands are beautiful and seem untouched, but plastic pollution is sadly still a threat.

“It was shocking and heartbreaking to see plastic washing up on the beaches, animals stuck in discarded fishing nets and even microplastics in the water. But what is so inspiring is that so many local people are working to protect and preserve this beautiful place.

“This research aims to understand the sources of plastic, how the ecosystems of Con Dao are being impacted and provide evidence to push for the mitigation and conservation of the islands.”

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