90% of Seabirds Ingesting Human Plastic Waste

By Sunny Lewis

CANBERRA, Australia, August 31, 2015 (Maximpact News) – Plastic debris washing into the oceans from urban rivers, sewers and landfills is killing off the world’s seabirds, finds new research by an international team of scientists. They are urging better basic waste management practices to ensure the survival of these wild birds and the health of the ocean ecosystem.

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a global concern; concentrations reach 580,000 pieces per km2 and production is increasing exponentially, the scientists say in their study, published August 27 in the U.S. journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

Australian, British and American scientists examined seabird studies dating back to the early 1960s, when plastic was found in the stomachs of less than five percent of individual seabirds.

They found that plastics are becoming increasingly common in the guts of seabirds such as albatrosses, shearwaters, boobies and penguins. By 2010, 80 percent of seabirds had plastics in their stomachs.

The study was led by Dr. Chris Wilcox of Australia’s national scientific body CSIRO, with co-authors Dr. Denise Hardesty, also of CSIRO, and Dr. Erik van Sebille of the Imperial College London and the University of New South Wales, Australia.

“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 Dr. Wilcox. “We predict, using historical observations, that 90 percent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”

The scientists predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 percent of all seabird species by the year 2050.

They performed a spatial risk analysis using predicted debris distributions and ranges for 186 seabird species to model debris exposure.

Researchers with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara, crunched the data.

They learned that 90 percent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind – bags, bottle caps, toothbrushes, lighters, knife handles, nail-polish bottles, plastic fibers from synthetic clothes.

Birds can mistake the brightly colored plastics for food or swallow them by accident. This causes gut impaction, weight loss and death.

The researchers said plastics have the greatest impact on seabirds where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.

The most vulnerable areas are the Tasman Sea at the Southern Ocean boundary between Australia and New Zealand, and the southwestern margin of the Indian Ocean.

Dr. van Sebille says the plastics have the most devastating impact in the areas with the greatest diversity of species. “We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas. While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live there.”

Dr. Hardesty says she has found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird.

“Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife,” she said. “Even simple measures can make a difference.”

“Efforts to reduce plastics lost into the environment in Europe resulted in measurable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs within less than a decade,” Hardesty said, suggesting that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a short time.

The study is online here.

Featured Image: A red-footed booby surrounded by plastic debris on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean. (Photo by Britta Denise Hardesty CSIRO)  Blog Image: Plastic pulled from the stomachs of dead albatross chicks on Midway Island in one week in 2012. (Photo by Trevor Leyenhorst creative commons license via Flickr)

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