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Plastic in 60% of seabird species

By 2050, 99% of seabirds are expected to have plastic in their stomachs
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Researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London have found that the majority of seabird species, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, have plastic in their gut.

According to the study, led by Dr Chris Wilcox with co-authors Dr Denise Hardesty and Dr Erik van Sebille, nearly 60% of all seabird species now have plastic in their stomachs.

A message from the gyre – by Chris Jordan

A rising threat

Based on analysis of studies published since the early 1960s, the researchers found that it’s increasingly common to find plastic in seabirds’ stomachs. In 1960, plastic was found in the stomachs of less than 5% of individual seabirds – yet this figure had soared to 80% by 2010.

Based on current trends, the researchers predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99% of the world’s seabird species by 2050.

‘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.’

Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere

Bottle tops and clothes

The scientists estimate that 90% of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind.
This includes bags, bottle caps and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits.

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

‘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.

‘We predict, using historical observations, that 90% of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.’

Dr Wilcox, senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere

Devastating impacts

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.

Dr van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said the plastics had the most devastating impact in the areas where there was 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 here.’

Dr van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London

Reducing the threat

Dr Hardesty said there was still the opportunity to change the impact plastic had on seabirds.

‘Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife.

‘Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measurable 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.’

Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere

Pervasive plastics

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.

‘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.’

Dr George H. Leonard, Chief Scientist at the US-based Ocean Conservancy

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 study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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