Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Spatial & Temporal Patterns of Microplastic Pollution in Wellington, New Zealand, and the Southern Ocean

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posted on 2021-12-09, 00:44 authored by Shannon, Caitlyn

The global marine environment is currently facing unprecedented anthropomorphic change and stress. One such stressor is plastic pollution, which has continually increased in magnitude since mass production began in the 1940’s. An increase in plastic debris throughout the oceans not only results in an infiltration of the pollutants throughout the entirety of the marine environment, but also increases the risk that it impacts the physiological, structural, and behavioural traits of various organisms – including humans. These negative interactions are particularly likely with microplastic particles (< 5 mm), as they can enter and be transferred throughout the food web with ease. However, research in the field of microplastic pollution is extremely one-sided, with most present studies focusing on the Northern Hemisphere. Additionally, comparatively little has been investigated regarding temporal and spatial patterns of microplastic occurrence. The aim of this research was to 1) examine the abundance and distribution of synthetic particles in sub-surface waters of the Southern Ocean, across broad temporal and spatial scales and 2) examine finer-scale spatial and temporal patterns of microplastic load within the urbanised Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, using a combination of environmental and biological indicators.  To assess the broad-scales of temporal and spatial variation in the Southern Ocean, annual Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) tows were undertaken between New Zealand waters and the Ross Sea, Antarctica, over a span of 9 years (the austral summers of 2009/10 – 2017/18) and a range of 5 oceanographic zones and two frontal systems, totalling a distance of approximately 22,000 km. Overall, patterns were inconsistent, with no constant increase or decrease in load throughout the years, while spatial variation was minimal and not associated with particular oceanographic fronts or proximity to an urban area. Despite no consistent spatial variation, temporal differences did occur between years. Again, there were no identifiably consistent trends across years (i.e. a gradual increase), but there was a substantial peak in 2009/10 and a trough in 2012/13. Such changes are likely due to large-scale variations in ocean circulation systems, along with environmental drivers such as El Niño and La Niña events.  To investigate the microplastic load in a more urbanised environment, 3-monthly surveys were undertaken with surface waters, beach sediments, and M. gallloprovincialis mussels in Wellington Harbour, New Zealand, using samples from three sites for beach and mussel surveys, and two sites for the surface water tows. Weekly variation was also measured for beach sediments and mussel tissues. Again, no consistency was observed in temporal or spatial variation for any environmental or biological indicator, however the average pollutant loads were on par with reported results in other literature, particularly for M. galloprovincialis tissues. Temporally, the peak microplastic load in the tissues of the mussel, M. galloprovincialis, appeared to correlate with the peak load found within the surface waters of the harbour, indicating a possible relationship between plastic pollution in the environment and that which is found within organisms. Finally, the spatial variation observed within beach sediments was far larger than that seen throughout the mussel tissues, supporting the idea that beach sediments are microplastic sinks, but also susceptible to a range of environmental drivers including wind strength, wind direction, and sediment erosion.  Throughout the Southern Ocean and within Wellington Harbour, particle characteristics were similar, in that microfibres were the prevailing synthetic morphotype – accounting for upwards of 90% of all particles found. These results are similar to reports from other current literature, but not associated with public knowledge that is currently in the media and represented in the legislation. The results of this thesis illustrate the importance of monitoring and managing the occurrence and effect of microplastics on both fine- and broad-scales of temporal and spatial variation and helps address the knowledge gap surrounding microplastics in the Southern Hemisphere.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Marine Biology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Biological Sciences


Phillips, Nicole