Plastic is pervasive in modern economies and ecosystems. Freshwater fish ingest microplastics (i.e., particles <5 mm), but no studies have examined historical patterns of their microplastic consumption. Measuring the patterns of microplastic pollution in the past is critical for predicting future trends and for understanding the relationship between plastics in fish and the environment. We measured microplastics in digestive tissues of specimens collected from the years 1900–2017 and preserved in museum collections. We collected new fish specimens in 2018, along with water and sediment samples. We selected four species: Micropterus salmoides (largemouth bass), Notropis stramineus (sand shiner), Ictalurus punctatus (channel catfish), and Neogobius melanostomus (round goby) because each was well represented in museum collections, are locally abundant, and collected from urban habitats. For each individual, we dissected the digestive tissue from esophagus to anus, subjected tissue to peroxide oxidation, examined particles under a dissecting microscope, and used Raman spectroscopy to characterize the particles' chemical composition. No microplastics were detected in any fish prior to 1950. From mid‐century to 2018, microplastic concentrations showed a significant increase when data from all fish were considered together. All detected particles were fibers, and represented plastic polymers (e.g., polyester) along with mixtures of natural and synthetic textiles. For the specimens collected in 2018, microplastics in fish and sediment showed similar patterns across study sites, while water column microplastics showed no differences among locations. Overall, plastic pollution in common freshwater fish species is increasing and pervasive across individuals and species, and is likely related to changes in environmental concentrations. Museum specimens are an overlooked source for assessing historical patterns of microplastic pollution, and for predicting future trends in freshwater fish, thereby helping to sustain the health of commercial and recreational fisheries worldwide.
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