Science of The Total Environment
Marine plastics are considered to be a major threat to the sustainable use of marine and coastal resources of the Caribbean, on which the region relies heavily for tourism and fishing. To date, little work has quantified plastics within the Caribbean marine environment or examined their potential sources. This study aimed to address this by holistically integrating marine (surface water, subsurface water and sediment) and terrestrial sampling and Lagrangian particle tracking to examine the potential origins, flows and quantities of plastics within the Southern Caribbean. Terrestrial litter and the microplastics identified in marine samples may arise from the maritime and tourism industries, both of which are major contributors to the economies of the Caribbean region. The San Blas islands, Panama had the highest abundance of microplastics at a depth of 25 m, and significantly greater quantities in surface water than recorded in the other countries. Modelling indicated the microplastics likely arose from mainland Panama, which has some of the highest levels of mismanaged waste. Antigua had among the lowest quantities of terrestrial and marine plastics, yet the greatest diversity of polymers. Modelling indicated the majority of the microplastics in Antiguan coastal surface were likely to have originated from the wider North Atlantic Ocean. Ocean currents influence the movements of plastics and thus the relative contributions arising from local and distant sources which become distributed within a country's territorial water. These transboundary movements can undermine local or national legislation aimed at reducing plastic pollution. While this study presents a snapshot of plastic pollution, it contributes towards the void of knowledge regarding marine plastic pollution in the Caribbean Sea and highlights the need for international and interdisciplinary collaborative research and solutions to plastic pollution.