Why is Whole Ecosystem Research Important?

Understanding the fate and effects of microplastics in aquatic ecosystems

Written By
Guest Blogger

Today’s guest blog comes from Dr. Chelsea Rochman, Assistant Professor at University of Toronto and Scientific Advisor to Ocean Conservancy.

COVID-19 kept me cooped up inside and out of the field for more than a year. I missed field research so much that I was THRILLED to spend my first few days back there. It was exhilarating to be on my knees in the mud scrubbing floats while it snowed on our heads. Yes, I was beyond excited to be back in the field. But, I was also excited to start the project I’d always dreamed about: using whole ecosystem science to research microplastics at the International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA).

IISD-ELA is one of the world’s most influential freshwater research facilities.

It includes a system of 58 lakes used for long-term ecological studies and manipulative whole-lake or in-lake limnocorral experiments. Over the last 50 years, ELA has provided science needs to address a range of environmental problems ranging from nutrient pollution, acid rain, emerging contaminants, climate change and fisheries. Ever wonder how we decided to take phosphorus out of detergents? The policy decision was informed by research at IISD-ELA that discovered phosphorus was a driver of harmful algal blooms.

Students scrubbing floats for Ecosystem Research

Here, we are using IISD-ELA to better understand microplastic pollution. Microplastic pollution (small pieces of plastic waste <5mm in size) is ubiquitous globally. It contaminates all ecosystems, the air that we breathe, and is present in every level of the food web. Such widespread contamination, combined with evidence of risk, has led to a global policy movement to increase our understanding and prevent further emissions of microplastics. At IISD-ELA, we are working in freshwater systems—heavily impacted by anthropogenic stressors and urgently needing conservation action. Our long-term objective is to gain a better understanding of the physical and chemical fate of microplastics and how they impact aquatic ecosystems across all levels of biological organization, from molecules to ecosystems. Our work will span all trophic levels including bacteria, algae, macrophytes, zooplankton, macroinvertebrates, amphibians, fish and birds.

This research relies on an international and multidisciplinary team of scientists and practitioners.

Combined, we have a collective 88 years of experience researching plastic pollution and 91 years carrying out ecosystem-based research at IISD-ELA. Over the last six years, this team has collectively published >700 scientific papers, including 147 on microplastics. Ocean Conservancy serves as a key partner on this research, as investigating aquatic microplastic pollution informs science and policy in both freshwater and marine ecosystems.

research experiment

Our research begins with a series of in-lake limnocorral experiments and aims to run a whole ecosystem experiment beginning in 2023.

Ultimately, we will fill key research gaps and provide critical evidence to inform policies aimed at mitigating microplastic pollution.

This summer, we began our first in-lake limnocorral experiment. What is that you ask? It’s basically the creation of nine small, self-contained lakes in the lake. Within each corral we have a small lake ecosystem. Within each mini lake, we can add different concentrations of microplastics to track the fate of the microplastics and their effects on a freshwater community. Results from this study will inform how different concentrations of microplastics affect aquatic ecosystems, informing governments of the concentrations that may trigger different management decisions in their local aquatic ecosystems. Management strategies may include monitoring, trapping litter with trash traps, regulating inputs upstream and/or seafood guidelines.

These valuable lakes in Canada provide critical information globally. They help conduct the most environmentally and ecologically relevant science to inform real-world positive change we can see, eat and enjoy.

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