Seabirds: Victim of Plastic Pollution

Plastic debris floating in some parts of the ocean has been an environmental problem for almost half a century. The ‘garbage patches’, hold approximately 600,000 pieces of debris in each square kilometre of surface water. These bite-sized trashes often harm marine life including birds. Due to the explosion of the floating garbage, scientists estimate, by 2050, almost every marine avian species would be eating plastic.

Only a small percentage of global plastic production ends up in ocean. However now-a-days that adds up to about 300,000 tons per year!

A study by a research group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Centre for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) recently estimated that 90% of seabirds have consumed some form of plastic, thus showing the ubiquity of plastic pollution. Another study by the same research team showed earlier that more than 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land each year.

The team analysed 186 oceangoing species from 42 genera including albatrosses, gull, petrels, and penguins. They considered the common food of birds and also the area from where they collected the food with the combination of known concentrations of floating plastic, the growing rate of plastic production, and the growing number of bird species known to have eaten plastic (a number that’s increasing about 0.2% each year).

Several studies published since the early 1960s showed that plastic is increasing in seabirds’ stomachs. In 1960, plastic was found in less than 5% seabirds which rose to 80% by 2010. Based on current trends, the scientists predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99% of the world’s seabird species by 2050.

The overabundance of plastic comes from bags, bottle caps and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes that 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.

Preventive measures can be taken to reduce the impact plastic has on marine wildlife by improving waste management. Efforts to reduce plastics dumped into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs in less than a decade. Thus improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time.

Seabirds are brilliant pointer of ecosystem health. Thus the study is an effort to characterize the impact of marine debris on the ecosystem.

The study has recently been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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