Measuring marine toxins and pollution in Marshall Islands

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Cindy Knapman, (808) 956-7410
Communications Leader, Sea Grant College Program
Posted: Jun 22, 2020

Fisherman in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit:Garry Venus (World Bank)
Fisherman in the Marshall Islands. Photo credit:Garry Venus (World Bank)
Fish sampling in the Marshall Islands. Garry Venus (World Bank)
Fish sampling in the Marshall Islands. Garry Venus (World Bank)
Fish caught in the Marshall Islands. Garry Venus (World Bank)
Fish caught in the Marshall Islands. Garry Venus (World Bank)

The Pacific region is home to many diverse peoples who depend on the marine environment for their jobs, food and recreation. In the Marshall Islands, fishing is an integral part of the culture and economy. And although there are limited sources of pollution nearby, local fish can become contaminated from toxins produced far away that persist in the environment.

To tackle this issue, an interdisciplinary research team from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, several Marshall Islands governmental agencies and the World Bank are starting a new project to measure the amount of toxins in fish and pollution in the sediments and waters of the Marshall Islands. The team will determine whether there are risks to human health in the waters where people live and play, and will make recommendations to address them.  

The project began because the Marshall Islands government was concerned about marine pollution and wanted to prioritize understanding whether their citizens can eat local fish and swim in their waters safely. 

The UH research team, with Max Sudnovsky, a UH Sea Grant College Program extension agent based at the College of the Marshall Islands, Megan Donahue, associate researcher in the School of Ocean Earth Science and Technology, and Catherine Pirkle, associate professor in the Office of Public Health Studies, along with post-doctoral researchers Rachel Dacks, Jonathan Whitney and Eileen Nalley, will combine their expertise to work with partners in the Marshall Islands to answer these important questions. 

"Marine pollution is a problem that affects communities worldwide," said Pirkle. “Toxins like mercury and PCBs are found in fish including swordfish and tuna, and studies show that small plastic particles are everywhere in our oceans, including in the fish we eat.”

This project will generate valuable data that will aid in the management of sustainable, healthy fisheries and communities. It is also aligned with other ongoing Hawaiʻi-based projects, such as the Pacific Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment program and the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System. This collaborative partnership continues to strengthen the relationship between the UH research community and colleagues in the Marshall Islands, while providing a framework for enhanced ecosystem-based management, adaptation and education in the Pacific region.

“This is an exciting project that brings together many different partners to integrate water quality, fish and sediment contamination, and consumption data so that we can comprehensively consider the human health risks associated with marine pollution throughout the Marshall Islands,” said Donahue.

The Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, Ministry of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency are working closely with the UH research team. 

The University of Hawaiʻi Sea Grant College Program is part of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s prestigious School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. It supports an innovative program of research, education and extension services directed to the improved understanding and stewardship of coastal and marine resources of the state, region and nation. Science serving Hawai‘i and the Pacific since 1968.

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