Marine Pollution and Toxicology
Mission and Research Lines
Our oceans and aquatic resources are endangered due to pollution, mainly from human action, and sources of pollution are very diverse as well as its effects.
At the School of Marine Studies we are working mainly on establishing baseline data for the presence of chemical pollutants such as metals, oil and nutrients and associated biological effects in aquatic organisms (so called biomarkers). Marine plastics are also an area of research mainly the presence of microplastics. The data will be useful for future monitoring programs and environmental risk evaluation.
The effects of these pollutants (biomarkers) are being studied in aquatic organisms (bioindicators) to understand the mode of action of these pollutants and their negative impact to the wellbeing of these organisms and how these organisms deal with the exposure to these pollutants.
In more detail, our research focus in three main lines: 1) establishment and validation of biomarkers and bioindicator species as early warning tools for the presence of classical and emerging contaminants, in estuarine and coastal environments, 2) study the regulation and functioning of detoxification processes in fish species and to evaluate the potential of emergent contaminants to modulate them, and 3) assessment for the presence of microplastics in marine ecosystems and potential effects to the biota.
● Assessment of damage caused to the aquatic ecosystem from the sewage spillage in the Cunningham River
Sewage spillages are among the major contributors to aquatic pollution in estuaries and coastal areas. Raw human wastewater contain a mixture of contaminants, that include high concentrations of organic compounds such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous. Biodegradation of the sewage organics result in the production of inorganic nutrients (such as nitrate and ortho-phosphorous) which lead to eutrophication of the aquatic environment. Eutrophication is a known consequence of sewages discharges that seriously impacts the health and development of most organisms inhabiting any aquatic environment. Sewage also contains heavy metals and these can bio-accumulate in fish and shellfish making them unhealthy and unsafe for consumption. On December 6 2014, strong winds and floodwaters severely impacted the Central Division of Fiji causing flash floods in low lying areas of Suva. As a result of the heavy downpour and strong winds, the major Suva-Kinoya sewer line located across the Cunningham River at the 4 miles bridge collapsed, sending about 200 litres per second of raw sewage into Cunningham Creek, through Samabula River and into Laucala Bay. This environmental disaster holds severe repercussions for different habitats and in particular for coral reefs and the fauna assemblages that inhabit them as well as the benthic in-fauna inhabiting estuaries and embayments. This investigation will therefore be centred on assessing the immediate and medium term consequences of the sewage spillage over Laucala Bay. The aquatic ecology scope of the work will constitute the bulk of the study by monitoring likely agents of impact of the wastewater discharge on the aquatic ecology and biomarkers in different organism with different levels of complexity.
● Identification of sentinel species and biomarkers for monitoring Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals and microplastics in Suva coastal area.
Protecting marine ecosystems is of crucial importance, especially in Pacific Island countries, because they are extremely dependent on marine resources for food (both subsistence and export), and other economically relevant activities, such as tourism. However, ubiquitous pollutants such as oil, metals and plastics can compromise the marine environment and ultimately the quality of seafood for human consumption. It is therefore critical to monitor oil, metals and plastic pollution in coastal waters and to identify early warning signs of stress due to the human health risks associated with oils, metals and plastic contamination. Biological changes in sentinel species are considered early warning signs, and therefore can be used for risk assessment and evaluation. Measuring the levels of pollutants in fish tissues provides valuable information about human exposure to contaminants that are accumulated in fish tissues. Pollutants can also decrease the nutritional quality of the food. The goal of this project is therefore to perform a first assessment for the presence of oil related pollutants, metals and plastics in Suva area and correlated biological effects in fish species. In addition, it will allow for test and identification of sentinel species and biomarkers to be used in future monitoring programmes in Fiji and in USP member countries. Moreover, the project will attempt to evaluate tourism impact on pollution and pollution impact on tourism and recreational activities.
Research Team and Projects
Principal Researcher, Associate Professor
Deputy Head of School for Learning and Teaching
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Rufino Robert Varea
PhD Title: “Applying biomarkers for monitoring the effects of pollution in the marine environment in Pacific Island Countries”.
Pollution in the marine environment is a cause for concern, as the ocean is the largest natural resource for Pacific Island Countries, and we are heavily reliant on marine resources for livelihood security. Over the years, human activity has threatened the natural order and sustainability of our oceans resources. Now we have reached a pivot point ─ to continue with our old ways and risk jeopardizing the natural state of our greatest resource, or change the way we do things and figure out how to better our actions for the sake of the environment. One approach to changing for the better is the application of biomarkers on marine sentinel organisms (vertebrate and invertebrate species) to monitor the effects of pollution and detect early warning signs of organismal health deterioration. The purpose of my PhD study is to use biomarkers to identify problems at early stages in the health of the organism and propose ways to mitigate the issue before it reaches stages that threaten the population of that organism, the resident communities, and/or the entire ecosystem. The process is called biomonitoring and this research is to set baseline data for Fiji and Pacific Island Countries.
Rufino obtained a degree in Environmental Studies in 2016 with the School of Geography, Earth Science, and Environment in the Faculty of Science Technology and Environment at the University of the South Pacific. In the same year, he pursued his postgraduate diploma in Environmental Studies before upgrading to a Master’s of Science in Marine Science with the School of Marine Studies. In 2018, Rufino made the decision to take his master’s research further into a PhD and was awarded a doctoral candidature after a vetting process of his proposal by local and international reviewers. Rufino is a passionate advocate for a pollution-conscious Pacific.
Veitayaki J., Waqalevu V., Varea R., Rollings N. (2017) Mangroves in Small Island Development States in the Pacific: An Overview of a Highly Important and Seriously Threatened Resource. In: DasGupta R., Shaw R. (eds) Participatory Mangrove Management in a Changing Climate. Disaster Risk Reduction (Methods, Approaches and Practices). Springer, Tokyo.
PhD Title : “The transport and origin of marine plastic pollution on the foreshores of Fiji islands”.
Plastic pollution in the ocean has become a recognized problem world wide and Fiji is no exception. The devastation that macro and micro plastics bring to marine organisms across all trophic levels has been well documented and urgent actions are required to save the marine ecosystem. Identifying the main sources of plastic pollution in Fiji will assist the Fijian government and environmental policy makers to manage the pollution. We predict that majority of the plastic washed up on the beaches of Fiji is generated locally and carried by the rivers into the ocean. To prove this the macro plastic debris will be collected, characterized and analyzed from multiple beaches of Viti Levu (including Suva) that are affected by the river outflow. This will be compared to a multiple sites carefully selected on the smaller Fiji islands distant from the rivers. We will use multiple beach transects and quadrats for plastic debris collection. We predict that the majority of the macro plastic pollution washed up on Fiji foreshore is carried by the river transport as opposed to the ocean transport. Rivers have been identified as main transport for global marine plastic pollution (Schmidt et al 2017) but this will be a first study carried out in the Pacific Islands.
MAppSc, Marine Biology, James Cook University, Townsville, Australia
MAppSc, Physics/Electronics Engineering, Kiev Polytechnic University, Ukraine
Bondarenko, Olga; Kininmonth, Stuart; Kingsford, Michael “Deployment of wireless sensor network to study oceanography of coral reefs”, 2010, International Journal On Advances in Networks and Services, vol 3, no 1
Bondarenko, Olga; Kininmonth, Stuart; Kingsford, Michael “Underwater Sensor Networks, Oceanography and Plankton Assemblages”, 2007, In Proceedings for ISSNIP 2007, Melbourne, Australia
Bondarenko, Olga; Kininmonth, Stuart; Kingsford, Michael “Coral Reef Sensor Network Deployment for Collecting Real Time 3-D Temperature Data with Correlation to Plankton Assemblages”. In Proceedings for SENSORCOMM 2007, Valencia, Spain
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MSc Title: “Mangrove health assessment in relation to macroplastic and microplastic concentrations within and outside mangrove forests”
Microplastics are plastic particles which are less than 5 mm either by design (primary microplastics) or formed when larger plastics undergo processes such as the hydrodynamic processes that break them into microplastics (secondary microplastics) and are further distributed the world over via ocean currents (Claessens, Van Cauwenberghe, Vandegehuchte, & Janssen, 2013). Mangrove ecosystems are seen to entrap plastic litter, bags, straws and bottles (to name the least), within their tree surface and dynamic root areas. Hydrodynamic processes that occur within the mangrove ecosystems break these larger plastics down into microplastics (Claessens et al., 2013). Lugworms, amphipods and barnacles are a few organisms that have been proven to ingest microplastics (do Sul, Costa, Silva-Cavalcanti, & Araújo, 2014). Since plastics are common in the oceans due to its wide distribution, many organisms are exposed to this pollutant.
This project will assess the concentration of macroplastics and microplastics found in the sediments collected within mangrove root ecosystems, as compared to that of the open coastal areas (mudflats without mangroves) in Navakavu and along the Nasese seawall. The overall health of the mangrove plants trapping these plastics will then be assessed to find out whether or not the entrapment of plastics can be affecting the health of mangrove ecosystems. Additionally, sampling will be done during the wet and dry seasons to compare the amount of plastics that are potentially washed down from rivers in the wet season. At the end of this experiment, the project is expected to highlight the importance of maintaining our mangrove forests to entrap litter which could easily be cleaned when washed up ashore rather than when they’re floating around out at sea.
Claessens, M., Van Cauwenberghe, L., Vandegehuchte, M. B., & Janssen, C. R. J. M. p. b. (2013). New techniques for the detection of microplastics in sediments and field collected organisms. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 70(1-2), 227-233.
do Sul, J. A. I., Costa, M. F., Silva-Cavalcanti, J. S., & Araújo, M. C. B. J. M. p. b. (2014). Plastic debris retention and exportation by a mangrove forest patch. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 78(1-2), 252-257.
BSc, Marine Science, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
PGDSc, Marine Science, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
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MSc Title: The Abundance and Distribution of Microplastics in Surface Waters Around Fiji.
The conditions in the Pacific coastal waters and oceans are in decline mainly due to increasing levels of land-based pollution, coastal development and habitat destruction. Global plastic production has increased twenty-fold in the past half century and is expected to double again the next 20 years, by the year 2050 it is expected that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans, a large percentage of this would be microplastics (MPs). MPs are tiny plastics fragments used to add scrubbing grit in cosmetics and air-blasting and more commonly the product of the breakdown of larger plastics. An emergent body of research on the ecotoxicological effects of MPs has unanimously yielded negative responses to all levels biota. Aside from the inherent risks of ingesting MPs, toxic responses are also the result of both the leaching of chemicals found in MPs and the presence of foreign pollutants which are found at high concentrations adhering to the surface of MPs. A particular concern is the effect of plastics on coral reefs whereby a likelihood of disease increases from 4% to 89% when in contact with plastic. Currently, research being conducted at the University of the South Pacific School of Marine Studies has shown the presence of MPs in all near-shore water samples from around Fiji (n=50). There have been no studies previously done on MPs in Fiji waters and consequently the quantity of MPs which originate from Fiji as well as the amount which is brought in from other places by the South Pacific gyre is not known. High levels of MPs in the marine environment will impact significantly on the health and vitality of marine resources and marine ecosystem services. Pacific islanders who depend heavily on the marine environment are expected to be disproportionately affected by plastic waste, most of which will be sourced from highly populous developed and to an increasing extent, developing countries. The objective of this study is to provide a first assessment on the amount of MPs present in surface waters around Fiji. The completion of the study will provide valuable insight into the levels of MPs found in surface waters around Fiji and consequently the degree to which the Fiji marine environment is inundated with MPs of foreign origins. The research will aid in establishing baseline data on the levels of MPs which will be the key in developing long term monitoring programs to detect environmental changes and evaluating the effectiveness of management actions related to plastic pollution control.
BSc, Marine Science, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
PGDSc, Marine Science, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
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MSc Title: “Life history characteristics and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon exposure in coral reef fish species Naso lituratus (Forster, 1801) in Fiji waters.”
The Pacific Island Countries and Territories (PICTs) depend heavily on marine fisheries resources as a source of protein and income. Fiji, as part of PICTs, is known to have majority of its human population relying on in-shore marine fisheries for subsistence and economic needs. With prediction that human population will be rising, food security in PICTs is under threat as fish stocks are decreasing. Marine fisheries management strategies are constantly evolving to ensure exploitation of marine resources are sustainable. Such strategies involve seasonal bans, marine protected areas, gear restrictions and size-catch limits. In PICTs, size-catch limits are often overestimated or underestimated as these are restricted to family instead of being species specific. Indeed, according to the Fisheries Act [Cap 158], size-catch limits are placed under the entire family level, however species under each family may reach maturity at different size. The problem with finding better marine management strategies is the massive research gap in coral reef fish species biological data. Therefore, as a pilot study, this master’s thesis will be looking into finding the key fisheries biological information for Naso lituratus. This key information includes the size-at-maturity, age-at-maturity, batch fecundity and diet according to sizes. These will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of current management strategies and to improve the species’ marine fisheries management, in particular by identification of a minimum catch-size. While rapid human population growth poses a threat to food security, there is also an increase in pollution that affects the environment as well as the fish that human consume. This study will also assess the presence and eventually the level of exposure that the species have to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
BSc, Environmental Science, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
PGDipSC, Geography, The University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
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MSc Title: Evaluation of trophic level transfer of microplastic from Mytilus Spp (Mussels) to Trachinotus blochii (Snubnose dart)
The project chosen looks at the trophic level transfer of microplastics based on a predation relationship between two nearshore species. The species being studied are the Snubnose dart (Trachninotus blochii) which is the predator and the mussels (Mytilus spp) which are the prey located along the Marine campus rock jetty. The two species are chosen as the mussels are one of the most susceptible to microplastic exposure being filter feeders and the Snubnose dart is a specialized feeder on hardbodies organisms. Hence the project will look at microplastics within the organisms and try and establish a relationship between microplastics within mussels and their contribution to microplastics in dependent feeders such as the Snubnose dart.
PGDip Environmental Management, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
BA Environmental Studies, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji
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Eduardo Estevan Barrientos
MSc thesis: Presence and abundance of microplastics in bivalve Batissa violacea in Viti Levu Island, Fiji: A preliminary study.
MSC Thesis: Abundance of Microplastics in water column, sediments and fish guts in Fijis coastal environment.
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