River of Plastic – sampling and making connections along the Mekong

It’s been a long while since I’ve written a blog – almost 2 months! I had a much needed holiday in June before lots of deadlines, presenting at a conference and planning for the first River of Plastic field trip. I’m lucky to be part of the team at the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull who was awarded a National Geographic research grant. We will be collecting samples along the Mekong from Laos through Cambodia and Vietnam to understand microplastic presence as well as documenting how local communities use plastic and perceive plastic pollution. I will also be collecting biological samples to understand ecological effects of microplastics.

The first trip was short and busy, carrying out sampling (water, sediment and biota) and also having lots of meetings to make local connections. I went with Dr. Chris Hackney, my supervisor and Dr. Viv Cumming, a scientist, photographer and filmmaker. Viv hopes to make a short film out of the trip in English, Khmer and Vietnamese to help educate and spread awareness of plastic pollution in the Mekong.

I got back almost a week ago now but moved house 2 days later – would not recommend after such an intense trip! I meant to write a journal whilst I was out there but we often wouldn’t get back until late and were up early so it just never happened. Hopefully I can still remember everything.

Day 1 and 2 – Travel from UK to Phnom Penh, meetings at Pannasastra University and the British Embassy

After a long flight to Phnom Penh, with a short stop in Bangkok, we arrived on Tuesday morning. Luckily we were staying not too far from the Mekong River where we would be sampling. We had a bit of time to get ourselves showered and wake up a bit before heading out for our first meeting at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, being picked up by our driver Ben, a Cambodian colleague who Chris has known for many years. We were introduced to Dr. Danet Hak, Associate Dean and 4 students who would be joining us on the boat and learning about our research. They were very interested in our project and keen to carry out their own research on plastic pollution!
Afterwards we headed to the British Embassy to meet the Deputy Head of Mission Cashel Gleeson who was very interested to hear about our project as well. One of our aims is to get involved with schools and local communities and maybe even help plastic pollution get integrated into the curriculum. He was very keen and supportive of our aims and hopes to set up more meetings in the future.

Day 3 – Market run, set up and sampling on the Mekong

We set off early to head to the market shops to buy a few supplies such as rope, tape, glass jars etc. It’s amazing what you can find in one tiny shop in these places and it didn’t take us long before we had everything we needed! We headed to the boat to set up all our equipment: building the float for the ADCP and attaching the plankton nets together with weights in order to measure water samples throughout the water column.
After lunch we headed out along the Mekong for our first set of sampling. We showed the students our techniques and they were really good in helping us carry out the work. (I missed having their help after we left!) Each net is 4m apart from the surface allowing us to see any changes in microplastic concentration and flux, while the ADCP measures flow and depth. On the first sample we brought up, we could already see microplastics. That day we could see microplastics in every sample. I expected to see microplastics but not so many so soon…
Before we left, Chris had discovered foldscopes, paper microscopes that you assemble yourself! I showed the students how to build them and we picked out a microplastic to put under the foldscope which produced the image below.

Day 4 – Sampling on the Mekong, fish dissections and sunset BBQ

We spent the day sampling different locations around Phnom Penh as well as managing to collect some bank sediment. While travelling down the Bassac River of Phnom Penh it was difficult to ignore the stark contrast in development between the two river banks: one side was very poor, covered in waste and plastic falling into the river. On the other side, huge Chinese investments towered over the river bank.

On the way back we spotted a small fishing boat and quickly headed towards it to buy some fish for me to dissect. They were more than happy to show us their catch, lifting up the wooden slats at the bottom of the boat to reveal a compartment filled with water and fish! I dissected a selection of fish species, collecting the guts and tissue which I will later bring back to the UK and analyse in the lab for microplastics. Dissecting in 40°C humid heat was really hard, especially wearing a face mask so I was more than happy to quickly get to the hotel for a quick shower before heading back to the boat for a sunset BBQ with the students!

Day 5 – Travel to Kratie

After having a more relaxing morning looking through the tourist markets, we began heading north to Kratie, a much more rural area and close to Kampi, the last known area where the Mekong population of the critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin are found. It was a long, bumpy road trip, but we stopped along the way to have a look at some local delicacies (below).

Photo by Viv Cumming

Day 6 – Sampling at Kampi, finding river dolphins and sampling at Kratie

We set off early to make our way to Kampi, about half an hour north from Kratie. The dolphins are known to live in a large pool by Kampi, so an area has been set up nearby with lots of tiny tourist boats. Ben got talking to one of the boat owners and quickly got us a boat for the morning!
We were told that the dolphins are most active during the afternoon so we weren’t expecting to see any. However within a couple of minutes of travelling across the river we soon spotted our first river dolphins! We moored up on a tiny island for me to collect some sediment and for Chris and Viv to fly the drone and film. Even though this was such a rural area I quickly spotted plastic litter in the branches and undergrowth.
We collected some plankton net samples before heading back to the dolphin pool where Viv tried to get some footage of them. We saw several dolphins but they were so illusive it was extremely difficult to get any proper footage.
After stopping off for a coconut we made our way back to Kratie for lunch before trying to find somewhere to collect water samples. We ended up collecting by the side of the dock with the help of some lovely locals. Next we headed to nearby restaurant for some much needed rehydration after spending all day in the sun! Luckily we had gone there as sitting out on the balcony we spotted a huge rain cloud on its way to us. Usually the heavy monsoon rain passes pretty quickly but we ended up being stuck there for a couple hours!

Day 7 – Traveling back to Phnom Penh and on to HCMC

We got up early to go to the local market to collect some fish for me to dissect. Afterwards
we had the long drive back to Phnom Penh, made even longer with some car issues but we made it to the airport. We said goodbye to Ben and were on our way to HCMC, arriving quite late we quickly found dinner and had a drink and headed to bed.

Day 8 – Meetings in HCMC and travel to Can Tho

We spent the morning in HCMC trying to make our way through the crazy moped filled streets for a couple of meetings. The first was at Lai Day Refill Station an incredible plastic-alternative zero-waste refill shop. We met with co-founder Quyen Nguyen who told us all about her business which only opened its first shop last October but has already proved popular! She’s managed to source almost everything from Vietnam and even managed to get her suppliers to ditch the plastic packaging! The products include coconut cutlery, beeswax foodwraps and local soaps, with the refill station including a huge range of shampoos, conditioners, washing up liquid and even natural mosquito repellent! I haven’t come across a shop like it in the UK and it was difficult not to buy everything!
Next we headed to Zero Waste Saigon to meet co-founder Michael Burdge who told us all about their exciting work to reducing plastic pollution including educational programmes and workshops in schools. We hope to work with them in the future to raise the awareness of plastic pollution issues.
Afterwards we went to meet our colleagues at Southern Institute of Water Resources Research who would be working with us a colleagues from Can Tho University. We then drove to Can Tho together after a very late lunch.

Day 9 – The floating market, sampling at Can Tho and meetings

Starting early, we met with our colleagues and went to the floating market of Can Tho for some filming and sampling. After some issues with the equipment were sorted (generator didn’t work, bed sampler didn’t like clay) we collected more plankton net samples and river bed samples. We headed back to the main town for a huge lunch and wonder around the market before heading upstream for our last river sampling.
Finishing mid-afternoon, we had some time to enjoy the pool and pack. In the evening we met with the Mekong Delta Youth, a group from Can Tho University who carry out projects with local communities to raise awareness of environmental issues. Their next aim is to produce short animated films detailing the issues of single use plastic. It was really interesting hearing about their work and they were very keen to work together to help raise awareness!
After a late dinner we said goodbye to Viv who had to catch an early flight the next morning.

Day 10 and 11 – Fish dissections from Can Tho, travel to HCMC and flight back to UK

With a student from Can Tho University, Chris and I headed to the local market to pick up some more fish for dissections. Next we went to the University to meet more colleagues and carry out the dissections before heading back to the hotel to relax and pack. We made our way back to HCMC for our long flight home that evening.

It was a crazy quick trip, and I’m still recovering from it but we collected lots of samples and made some really exciting connections which we hope to work with in the future. Our next field campaign will be in October/November this year and will see two teams sampling from Laos through to Cambodia, including Tonle Sap Lake, to Vietnam and the delta before going to the coral island of Con Son as well as working with local communities and organisations along the way. Be sure to follow me (@fray_marine_) and the team (@DrChrisHackney, @drvivcumming) on twitter with #RiverofPlastic where we post lots of updates of our work.

Photo by Viv Cumming

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