It has been a nightmarish start to the new year for coastal communities in the north of Spain and Portugal, with news of a shipping disaster where 26 metric tonnes of tiny plastic pellets were accidentally released into the sea off the coast of Portugal, and are now washing up on the shores of Galicia.
Over 26 metric tonnes of plastic pellets were released after several containers fell from the deck of Liberian-flagged container ship Toconao on 8 December, according to Spanish media sources. Other cargo which fell into the sea included vehicle tyres and plastic film.
The tiny pellets, at less than 5mm in diameter, began washing up on the coastline of Galicia, one of Spain's main seafood-producing regions, as early as 13 December. The pellets have now been reported as affecting almost the entire coastline of Galicia, and in recent days have also been detected in the neighbouring region of Asturias.
The Spanish Government has confirmed that a container with 1,000 bags of pellets fell off the container ship and into the sea. Some of the bags have washed up in one piece, but many more have burst open, dispersing the microplastics into the ocean.
In recent days, hundreds of volunteers coordinated by local fishermen's guilds, community organisations and environmental groups have been working on sifting through the debris by hand to remove as much of the plastic waste as possible.
However, the clean-up remains a mammoth task. At less than 5 millimeters in size, the pellets are extremely difficult to detect and remove.
In addition to contaminating beaches and shorelines, local communities fear the impact the plastic pollution will have on fish and shellfish, as marine creatures are likely to consume the pellets, mistaking them for prey.
Galicia is one of Spain's most important seafood-producing regions, and local people have expressed fears about how the pellets will affect the livelihoods of fishing and seafood communities.
Plastic polyethylene pellets are used to manufacture other plastic products, such as bottles, bags and containers, and can either be composed of "virgin" or recycled plastic. Plastic pellets, also known as "nurdles" or "nibs", are non-biodegradable and are considered a significant source of microplastic pollution in the marine environment, potentially entering the food chain and also posing risks to human health.
WeAreAquaculture will continue to update with further information on the situation as it becomes available.