A scientific study published by researchers at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and the University of Maine shows that a chemical in plastic bags made to U.S. FDA food-grade specifications can leach from the bag into seawater at such high concentrations that it can be deadly to fish. This chemical, called nonylphenol, can accumulate in plastic bags containing seawater to concentrations of 163 parts per billion (ppb) in less than 48 hours. The U.S. EPA Water Quality Criteria for acute exposure of nonylphenol in seawater is 7 ppb; concentrations seen in this study were almost 25 times higher than what is considered a danger to marine organisms.
Plastic bags are used extensively in the aquarium trade (i.e. pet stores), to ship fish and other invertebrates from the wild to pet stores. The researchers placed a species of cultured coral reef fish in these bags for 48 hours to emulate the time most coral reef organisms are kept in the bags when shipped from the wild and exported to the U.S. or Europe. The plastic bag from one manufacturer, but not from another, killed 60% of the fish within the 48 hour incubation. Fish that survived being held in the bags all died within 8 days of being released from these bags into an aquarium.
There are several major implications of this study to coral reef and marine conservation. If the aquarium trade industry is using toxic plastic bags to ship all their products from coral reefs to a consumer’s aquarium tank, how much of their product is destroyed before it ever makes it to the consumer? This is a critical conservation issue, because fish or corals that are lost in transit means more fish and coral that need to be taken from the wild to meet inventory demand. It is a serious problem for environmental conservation and management of coral reef natural resources.