Ethan Miller

Our manmade pollution is being eaten by fish, which are being eaten by us, creating a sad, karmic circle of garbage.

In a new study published in Scientific Reports, U.C. Davis researchers examined 76 fish slated for human consumption in Indonesia and 64 in California. They found that in both groups, roughly one quarter had anthropogenic debris in their guts.

Anthropogenic—or manmade—ocean pollution ranges from plastic bags to bottles to cans to general junk, but in this case the researchers found plastic in the Indonesian population and plastic and textile fibers in the American one.

The researchers guess that the differences arise from how each country manages waste. UC Davis explained in a statement:

Indonesia has little in the way of landfills, waste collection or recycling, and large amounts of plastic are tossed onto the beaches and into the ocean. The problem is made worse by a lack of purified drinking water that forces its residents to drink bottled water.


Lead author Chelsea Rochman added that “to mitigate the issue in each location, it helps to think about local sources and differences in waste management strategies."

Scientific Reports

It's not totally clear what this means for people, but eating fibers and plastic is probably bad. From the report:

Anthropogenic debris can elicit a biological response through both physical and chemical mechanisms of toxicity. Small anthropogenic debris has been shown to cause physical damage leading to cellular necrosis, inflammation and lacerations of tissues in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. As such, anthropogenic marine debris may cause physical harm to humans when debris is ingested via seafood (e.g., in whole sardines, mussels and oysters).


Shellfish, often consumed whole, are especially concerning. The scientists found that one-third of the shellfish sampled in the U.S. had ingested ocean garbage.

But, Rochman told Capital Public Radio, it's also possible that we are eating small fibers ourselves. She said, "I suppose in some cases the debris that we’re finding in the animals we may very well be eating ourselves." Although, she added, "we just really don’t know enough yet to say whether or not this is hazardous.”

Either way, we should probably stop dumping trash into the ocean.

Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.