Young fish are likely getting hooked on eating microplastic particles in the seas — and the effects are no different from teens feasting on junk food, including changing behaviors and stunted growth, new research has warned.

Researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden discovered that exposure to high polystyrene concentrations makes larval perch choose plastic over their natural food composed of zooplankton. As a consequence, the young perch are slower, smaller and more prone to predation.

“Fish reared in different concentrations of microplastic particles have reduced hatching rates and display abnormal behaviors,” said lead study author and marine biologist Oona Lönnstedt. “The microplastic particle levels tested in the current study are similar to what is found in many coastal habitats in Sweden and elsewhere in the world today.”

According to the team, larvae exposed to microplastic particles — defined as those less than 5 mm (0.2 inch) in size and hail from fragmented large plastic waste — remained much less active than those reared in waters free from such particles.

They also ignored the smell of predators. The plastic-exposed ones were eaten over four times more quickly than control fish, with the former all dead within two days.

The researchers called for banning plastic microbeads, which can be a source of these particles, in cosmetics. These microscopic waste materials reach the oceans through lakes and waterways, accumulating in high rates in shallow coasts.

The effects of microplastics could be “profound” as they include higher mortality rates in fish, warned Lönnstedt.

Last year, a separate study estimated that around 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans every year. Tiny fragments of these are worried to build up in the guts of marine creatures as well as leach toxic chemicals.

The United States has already banned the use of plastic microbeads in personal care products, with the pressure to do the same mounting in countries in Europe like the United Kingdom. Microbeads are deemed “unnecessary plastic pollution,” recently estimated to lead to up to $13 billion in yearly environmental damages.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

Photo: NOAA Photo Library | Flickr

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