Green polyethylene fibre found inside a thornback ray (Raja clavata) from the Thames Estuary at Isle of Sheppey. 

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Over a quarter of fish found in the Thames Estuary have ingested plastics, new research reveals

New research into the extent of plastic pollution in the UK, carried out by a team including scientists from The Natural History Museum, has found that 28% of fish living in the Thames Estuary have ingested microplastics. 

The study also revealed that 39% of fish in the Firth of Clyde estuary in Scotland were similarly affected. Whilst much attention has been focused on oceanic plastic pollution, this new study explores the impact microplastic waste, which consists of small pieces of plastic no larger than 5mm in size, is having on fish populations of the Clyde and Thames estuaries

The research of London NERC DTP PhD student Alexandra McGoran, along with others including Dr Paul Clark from the Natural History Museum, examined bottom dwelling and mid-water fish species at both sites.

The results of this study concluded that, out of the 876 fish and shrimp examined from both estuaries, around a third had ingested microplastics, and the average number of plastic pieces that had been consumed was equal across the Thames and Clyde.

Alex said: “People have started to really take note of the severity of plastic pollution and our research further demonstrates why this is such pressing issue. Both rivers are extremely diverse ecosystems, home to hundreds of different species. To see this large number of species that our plastic waste is putting in danger is actually rather shocking.

Our results show the need for more research into freshwater and estuarine ecosystems to be carried out so we can better understand the effects microplastics are having on their inhabitants.”

Dr Paul Clark said: “Assuming current trends continue then the total amount of plastic produced by 2050 will be 33bn tonnes. Therefore the amount of plastic litter polluting our beautiful blue planet will dramatically escalate over the coming years. Plastic pollution is on the same calamitous magnitude as climate change and deforestation. We are in need of a monumental behavioural change in human attitudes.

What I find most depressing about plastic pollution of our aquatic environment is that it is now irreversible and its presence will persist for many generations.”

This research was carried out in collaboration with Royal Holloway, University of London and University of the West of Scotland.

The project, Ingestion of plastic by fish: a comparison of Thames Estuary and Firth of Clyde populations, was partly supported by the University of London Sheina Marshall Memorial Fund and is published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.


Notes for editors

Interview: Alexandra McGoran and Dr Paul Clark are happy to be contacted for comment.

  • The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.
  • Royal Holloway, University of London, is ranked in the top 25 universities in the UK. Through world class research that expands minds and changes lives, the dedication of our teachers and the feel of the Royal Holloway experience, ours is a community that inspires individuals to succeed academically, socially and personally. The university was founded by two social reformers who pioneered the ideal of education and knowledge for all who could benefit. Their vision lives on today. As one of the UK’s leading research-intensive universities we are home to some of the world’s foremost authorities in the sciences, arts, business, economics and law. We are strengthened by diversity, and welcome students and academics who travel from all over the world to study and work here, ensuring an international and multi-cultural perspective within a close knit and historic campus.