Almost Every Seabird Has a Stomach Full of Trash and Plastic

A new study has found that a whopping 90% of seabirds are living with a gut full of plastic, trash and other ocean pollution.

An Australian team of researchers conducted a study on seabirds and debris, finding that nine out of 10 birds carry pollution in their stomach. They published the study, called “Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing” in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The cause is from a combination of plastic overproduction and birds mistaking plastic for fish eggs and other food. Study co-author and senior research scientist at the CSIRO, an Australian federal agency devoted to scientific research, Denise Hardesty says:

“It’s pretty astronomical. In the next 11 years we will make as much plastic as has been made since industrial plastic production began in the 1950s. [Birds] think they’re getting a proper meal but they’re really getting a plastic meal.”

Photo by Duncan / CC BY-SA 2.0
Photo by Duncan / CC BY-SA 2.0

Certain birds are especially prone to eating plastic, including some species of albatross, shearwaters, fulmars, and petrels. The plastic has devastating effects on the birds, with many choking on the various pieces. Others collect plastic bits in their gut, which reduces their ability to absorb nutrients, causing weight loss and eventual death. Still others suffer from toxic chemicals leaking out of the plastic in their stomach.

Interestingly, the biggest problem didn’t occur where there was the most pollution, but where there were the most species: specifically, in the southern hemisphere near Australia and New Zealand.

After reaching the conclusions in this study, the researchers are estimating numbers will increase to 99% of seabirds holding plastic in their guts by 2050. But the research also offered some positive insight into how to seabirds. Lead author of the study and senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Chris Wilcox says:

“Another surprise in our research was that seabirds eat plastics in proportion to the rate in which they encounter them. 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.”

Featured image by Michael Chen / CC BY 2.0

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