Canadian Army divers assist with Saint John River microplastics study

Article / October 15, 2019 / Project number: 19-0244

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By Dreama Galbraith, 5th Canadian Division Support Group Environmental Services Branch

Oromocto, New Brunswick — The Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering Army Dive Centre and the 5th Canadian Division Support Group Environmental Services Branch helped advance the research of Atlantic Canada scientists from Mount Allison University who are studying the emerging concerns of microplastics (MPs) pollution in the Saint John River watershed.

MPs are any type of plastic in the environment measuring 5.0 mm or less.

They enter ecosystems from direct sources or through fragmentation of larger plastics particles and are now a widespread pollutant in soil, fresh water and oceans around the world.

Higher concentrations of MPs may pose a threat to biota (the animal and plant life of a particular region or habitat) and ecosystem function, but questions remain about the source, transport and distribution of MPs throughout terrestrial and aquatic systems.

On August 8, 2019, Chief Dive Instructor Sergeant Matthew Innocent launched members of the Army Dive Team into the Saint John River with the task of collecting sediment samples and freshwater mussels at two sites adjacent to 5th Canadian Division Support Base Gagetown, near Oromocto, New Brunswick.

The exercise was completed according to plan with a surplus of scientific research samples acquired. Mount Allison University research assistants, Casey Doucet and Amber LeBlanc, were very pleased with the quality of samples taken.

Postdoctoral Fellow Andrew Labaj, of the Environmental Change and Aquatic Biomonitoring Laboratory (ECAB Lab) at Mount Allison University, noted that collaboration with the Canadian Army was welcomed. “We are very pleased to obtain samples from an area we would normally not be able to reach.”

The information gained will be used to map MPs distribution and human impact connected to land use in the Saint John River watershed.

The maps produced will be a tool used to relate the MPs’ concentrations in the environment to potential single point sources, such as a wastewater pipe; and non-point sources, such as farmland runoff. This will increase the understanding of linkages between MPs sources, their environmental distributions and their entry into the food web and show conditions where MPs pose no ecological threats compared to places with higher concentrations of MPs.

Joshua Kurek, PhD of the ECAB Lab at Mount Allison University is the lead researcher on the project.

“We have just finished our first of two field seasons. Field sampling is the fun and easy part. The next research phase involves countless hours in the lab processing samples and isolating microplastics,” he said.

“But I can tell you that in the few samples analyzed so far, we’ve observed dozens of microplastic fibres in every sample.”

In future years, Mount Allison University will continue collecting and testing samples to establish baseline MP amounts in the Saint John River water and sediments. The findings will be made available to the public and provincial and federal policy makers.

This study will help refine methods for detecting MPs, better understand their threat to the environment, and develop management strategies in the Saint John River and select tributaries for this emerging environmental stressor.


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