Soon Nearly Every Seabird Will Be Flying With a Gut Full of Plastic Trash

A new study finds that 90 percent of species are being harmed by ocean pollution.

(Photo: Education Images/Getty Images)

Sep 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

You’ve probably seen photos of albatrosses or other birds that have choked on plastic debris in the ocean that they accidentally ate. Now new research shows that albatrosses are far from unique. According to a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, at least 90 percent of the world’s seabirds suffer from the dangerous effects of oceanic plastics.

That’s not all. The problem, according to the paper, is going to get much worse. By the year 2050, ninety-nine percent of seabird species could be affected by oceanic plastic.

The paper is part of an ongoing attempt to measure how oceanic plastic affects biodiversity, said lead author Chris Wilcox, senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere, an Australian federal agency devoted to scientific research. The same team’s previous research, released earlier this year, revealed that 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year, a level that is increasing annually.

Wilcox said he was “quite surprised” by how many seabird species had been documented with plastic in their gut. “I expected to see studies of plastic in albatross because we’ve seen those pictures for years,” he said. Albatrosses were not the exception, they found. “Albatrosses are sort of the norm. It’s a little scary,” he admitted.

The more plastic birds eat, the worse the impacts. Some birds choke, but others collect indigestible bits of plastic in their gut, which reduces their ability to absorb nutrition and results in reduced body weight and eventually death. Some birds also suffer from toxic chemicals that leak out of the plastic while it is in their gut.

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Albatrosses ate a little bit less plastic than some other species, the researchers found. “High-seas seabirds, which feed offshore and cover large areas, tend to have pretty high levels of plastic,” Wilcox said. Birds that consume a wide range of prey include shearwaters, fulmars, and petrels.

The worst-affected seabirds, the researchers found, all came from the oceans between New Zealand and Australia. The team’s previous research found that China and Indonesia contributed about 45 percent of the total plastic entering the ocean every year. (The U.S., they found, contributed more than twice as much plastic waste per person, although the total impact was less.)

Interestingly, the researchers found less evidence of seabird species affected by the notorious Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other gyres of floating plastic in the middle of the ocean. “There’s tons of plastic in gyres, but there aren’t as many species that live around them,” Wilcox said.

The research offers clues into how to reduce the plastic that enters the ocean, as well as how to conserve seabirds.

“Another surprise in our research was that seabirds eat plastics in proportion to the rate in which they encounter them,” Wilcox said. “If a seabird is in an area with a lot of plastic, they eat a lot of plastic. That makes the problem a very tractable one.” Identifying where birds feed and where oceanic plastic is, he says, will allow conservationists to “make pretty straightforward predictions about the risk to birds.”

With this look at seabirds under its belt, the team plans to continue to study how oceanic plastic affects wildlife. A paper about plastic’s impact on sea turtles is due out in September, and the researchers are conducting similar research on fish. They plan to tackle marine mammals next.