My ACU Blue Charter Fellowship: a stepping stone towards a solution

Colorful sea anemone
Rufino Varea
Rufino Robert Varea

Rufino Robert Varea is a PhD candidate in Marine Science at the University of the South Pacific. Rufino travelled to the University of Adelaide for his Blue Charter Fellowship earlier this year.

Plastic Pollution is a problem that is a result of human activity and is becoming more problematic as new information is made available each year about its associated effects in the environment, and the threat it poses to human health. When people think of plastics, it shouldn't be about pieces of plastics floating around in our ocean, or littered around on our streets. Today, we know that the reach of plastics is so vast that it is now implicating our seafood, our drinking water, and the sad thing is that there is still no real solution to closing the plastic tap. When plastics make their way into our oceans, they breakdown into tiny sizes called microplastics. These small pieces of plastics usually are mistaken for food by marine organisms in whatever size, shape or colour it takes form as, and this is why plastics are so notorious. Under the ACU Blue Charter Fellowship, I was given the opportunity to study these notorious plastics, at the University of Adelaide, in shellfish sampled from the South Australian Coastal Environment.


There is a serious problem about the properties and qualities of plastics that make it interestingly difficult to beat, yet very harmful and destructive. Plastics can sorb toxic chemicals from the environment, and once ingested by an organism; these toxic chemicals can be translocated to other parts of the tissue of an organism. For fish, the gut is usually removed first before being consumed by a person, and if those toxic chemicals haven't already been translocated, then the fish may be safe to consume (but we really wouldn't know without first doing tests). But for shellfish, like oysters and mussels, people consume the entire tissue and take in with it whatever microplastics that may be present, along with any associated toxic substances from the microplastics. This is why I chose to work with shellfish and study ingestion and abundance of microplastics in its gut.


I arrived in Adelaide during the hottest time of the year, so collecting the three different species I wanted (Oysters, Mussels, and Goolwa Cockles) was not easy. Instead, I had no other option but to keep my study focused on one species, oysters (Crassostrea gigas). Here are some of the microplastics (less than 5mm in size) that I found in the tissues of C. gigas:

Samples of marine plastics

There are still more samples to be analysed, and this delay was due to extreme weather conditions, but all data information will be collated soon. However, the experience of the research fellowship was one I will be forever grateful for. I got to work with Prof. Bronwyn Gillanders and her amazing team of researchers from the University of Adelaide and had the opportunity to share my research with them, as well as learn about the great work that they are carrying out. I got to travel to other states in Australia and simply felt fully engaged during my three-month placement abroad. It is worth mentioning that my experience as an ACU research fellow was one that was made complete upon my return to the University of the South Pacific (USP) to find how much progress the Marine Pollution team at the School of Marine Studies had made in the excellent work they are doing. I got to hear how my friend, Nina Wootton (who also was a recipient of the ACU Blue Charter fellowship from the University of Adelaide), had a fantastic time working with Assoc. Prof Marta Ferreira and her team at USP. The highlight of my trip would be the networking I made among colleagues whom I can now consider friends, and my quest to maintain collaborations into the future with them is one that is important to me.

#TeamAdelaide and #TeamFiji

Keeping close links with international colleagues as part of microplastics research is very important because institutions are equipped differently according to the approach they are taking towards their studies. There may also be differences in the facilities and capacities to carry out microplastics research, which I got to witness firsthand. So, findings from one university may be intimately linked to an aspect of your research that you might find helpful to overcome for certain difficulties. Nina and I, for example, exchanged placements at our home universities as part of the ACU blue charter and kept in close collaborations related to our research because the two universities had a different set up for microplastics work, which was interesting to learn about. We also got to exchange ideas with the different teams that we were working with at our host universities. We had the opportunity to present at a seminar together to share our findings with marine stakeholders in Fiji, who were enthusiastic about learning our preliminary research findings. I am most keen to maintain the network I have made through the ACU fellowship, and I would encourage other ACU fellows to do the same because it may be beneficial in time to come.


I would like to thank the ACU Blue Charter research fellows all around the commonwealth for the hard work they are doing, and I hope that their experience has been just as good, if not better than the one I had. It is initiatives like the Commonwealth Marine Plastics Research and Innovation Framework, which enables our good work in plastics research, and one that should be encouraged for an undertaking. If we are ever to have a fighting chance against the plastic problem that we created, we must work together and transcend to becoming part of the solution. In my research quest, I have come to believe that there is no place that plastics cannot implicate. Its reach is far greater than what I thought could be possible before I had set out on this research.

I leave you all with this message: For a scientist to hear the words 'you are always talking trash' is a double burden. Because the uninformed polluter and the environmentalist see it from different perspectives which they both individually agree upon. We should ask ourselves where we stand on this issue? We need to be more aware of the plight of the plastic problem, and we need continued discussions, a platform for dialogue, and dissemination of information and findings of the problem so that we can positively change with the tides.