Environment: Scientists say 90 percent of all seabirds have ingested plastic debris

One study found 200 bits of plastic in a single seabird

heron
A heron patrols the splash zone of a beach on the Florida Gulf Coast. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — Plastic debris in the world’s oceans is now so widespread that about 60 percent of all seabirds have bits of plastic in their gut. Based on current trends, 99 percent of all seabirds will be affected by plastic ingestion by 2050, a team of international scientists said this week.

Based on a review of all studies published since the early 1960s, the scientists estimated that more than 90 percent of seabirds have alive today have eaten plastic of some kind. In 1960, plastic was found in the stomach of less than 5 per cent of individual seabirds, rising to 80 per cent by 2010.

“For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species … and the results are striking,” said CSIRO researcher Dr. Chris Wilcox. “We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”

Wilcox also contributed to a study published earlier this year that found more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year.

The plastic waste includes bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibers from synthetic clothes that wash out into the oceans from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits. Another key source is from plastic microbeads used in many common household products, as quantified in another recent study by UK researchers.

Birds mistake the brightly colored items for food, or swallow them by accident, and this causes gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death.

“Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we’ve carried out where I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird,” CSIRO ocean researcher Dr. Denise Hardesty.

The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America. Already, biologists have tracked an alarming decline in overall seabird populations.

“We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas,” said Dr. Erik van Sebille, with the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. “While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here,” van Sebille said.

Better management of waste is needed to reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife,” Hardesty said, explaining that controlling the amount of plastic going into the environment can pay off quickly.

“Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time,” she said.

Chief Scientist at the US-based Ocean Conservancy, Dr. George H. Leonard, said the study was highly important and demonstrated how pervasive plastics were in oceans.

“Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world come face-to-face with this problem during annual Coastal Cleanup events,” Leonard said. “Scientists, the private sector and global citizens working together against the growing onslaught of plastic pollution can reduce plastic inputs to help protect marine biodiversity.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

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