9 Out of 10 Seabirds Have Eaten Plastic
Ocean plastic has been ingested by 90 percent of all seabirds alive today, a new study finds, and the problem is still getting worse. But it's not too late to intervene, researchers say.
By Russell McLendon / mnn.com
Sep 3, 2015

albatross chick on Midway Atoll

An albatross chick stands amid garbage that has washed ashore on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. (Photo: Kris Krüg/Flickr)

Plastic trash isn't just accumulating in oceans around the planet. It's also increasingly piling up somewhere even more vulnerable: inside the stomachs of seabirds, from albatrosses to penguins, that confuse the indigestible garbage with food.

In 1960, fewer than 5 percent of individual seabirds had evidence of plastic in their stomachs. That soared to 80 percent in 2010, and now it's up to 90 percent.

This is according to a new study, led by researchers from Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), that analyzes the risk based on distribution patterns of marine debris, the ranges of 186 seabird species, and studies of birds' plastic ingestion conducted between 1962 and 2012.

Not only does the study suggest 90 percent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind, but based on current trends, it predicts 99 percent of seabird species on Earth will be plagued by plastic ingestion within 35 years.

"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," lead author and CSIRO scientist Chris Wilcox says in a press release. "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."

wandering albatross

Floating pieces of plastic resemble food to soaring seabirds like this wandering albatross. (Photo: Ben/Flickr)

The plastic being eaten by seabirds runs the gamut from bags, bottle caps and cigarette lighters to plastic fibers from synthetic clothes, the researchers say, much of which ends up at sea after washing through urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits.

But why are seabirds eating it? Since they rarely have time to examine their seafood before it gets away, many seabirds have evolved to rapidly grab meals from the water as they fly or swim by. This eat-first-and-ask-questions-later strategy had few risks for most of their history, but the past 60 years have brought a sea change to Earth's oceans by peppering them with specks of stomach-clogging plastic.

The problem is especially evident among Laysan albatrosses, which hunt by skimming the surface with their large beaks. They end up eating lots of plastic this way, some of which they later regurgitate for their chicks on land. But while adults can throw up inedible trash they've accidentally eaten, their chicks can't. Depending on the debris, too much might tear a chick's stomach or just cause it to starve despite feeling full. Evidence of such misfortune has become surprisingly common in some places, documented in heartbreaking photos like this one from Midway Atoll:

albatross chick stomach contents

This albatross chick's parents unwittingly fed it a fatal diet of plastic debris in 2009. (Photo: Chris Jordan/USFWS)

albatross stomach contents

Bottle caps and cigarette lighters are among the debris often found in seabird stomachs. (Photo: Trevor Leyenhorst/Flickr)

Although plastic pollution affects seabirds worldwide, the researchers say it has the most devastating impact in places with high biodiversity. And according to their study, ocean plastic's worst effects occur in the Southern Ocean, specifically a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.

"We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas," says co-author Erik van Sebille, an oceanographer 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 [there]."

This research helps illuminate another recent study, which reported that Earth's monitored seabird populations have fallen by 70 percent since the 1950s — the equivalent of about 230 million birds in just 60 years. As the authors of that study explained in a statement, this isn't just a problem for seabirds, since the winged predators are like canaries in a coal mine for their entire ecosystem.

"Seabirds are particularly good indicators of the health of marine ecosystems," said Michelle Paleczny, a researcher at the University of British Columbia. "When we see this magnitude of seabird decline, we can see there is something wrong with marine ecosystems. It gives us an idea of the overall impact we're having."

Laysan albatross

An adult Laysan albatross rests at sunset on Midway Atoll. (Photo: Brenda Zaun/USFWS)

Fortunately, that impact may still be reversible. While plastic doesn't truly break down as biodegradable substance do, and removing it from the sea is generally impractical, recent research suggests it doesn't linger in surface waters for long.

An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic now enters the oceans every year, fueled by explosive growth of commercial plastic production — an output that has roughly doubled every 11 years since the 1950s. Just by reining in that flood of plastic, researchers say we might be able to slow the global decline of seabirds.

"Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife," says CSIRO researcher Denise Hardesty, a co-author of the new study. "Even simple measures can make a difference, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers."

3.5 ·
1
Trending Today
MP Says Government is Intentionally Making People Destitute to Prevent Organised Opposition
2 min48,148 views today ·
Every Town Needs a Remakery
Jeremy Williams45,954 views today ·
Revolution and American Indians: “Marxism is as Alien to My Culture as Capitalism”
Russell Means30,392 views today ·
Carnage (2017)
65 min9,469 views today ·
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min9,181 views today ·
Have We Been Denying Our Human Nature for Four Hundred Years?
Lynn Parramore4,847 views today ·
Visit Hawai'i - The Occupied State
2 min3,668 views today ·
Without Saying a Word This 6 Minute Clip From Samsara Will Make You Speechless
6 min3,498 views today ·
Stressed out? This Weird, Relaxing And Life-Affirming Video May Be Just What You Need
3 min3,406 views today ·
Load More
New
'Disaster': Trump Administration Signs off on Keystone XL Pipeline
Nika Knight
Escape From Syria - Faiza's Story
5 min
A Letter to Extremists
Nafeez Ahmed
Muslims This, ISIS That
3 min
Visit Hawai'i - The Occupied State
2 min
Musician Macka B. Schools Us on Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet
4 min
Carnage (2017)
65 min
Why Recognizing Our Own Privilege Can Be so Hard
Chris Agnos
Love is Not Something That You Do - It is Something That You Can Become
1 min
Load More
What's Next
The Life of a Plastic Bag
4 min
The Story of Stuff
21 min
Chilwe, La Isla De Las Aves (Chilwe, The Island of Birds)
8 min
Like us on Facebook?
9 Out of 10 Seabirds Have Eaten Plastic