Seabirds ingest bellyfuls of plastic pollution
Discarded plastic has become a potentially dangerous staple in the diet of seabirds.
The stomachs of 95% of all fulmars that researchers found washed up dead around the North Sea contained fragments of plastic. One dead bird from Denmark had 20.6 grams of plastic in its belly, equivalent to about 2 kilograms in a human-sized stomach.
Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) like to feed on fish and offal discarded by trawlers. Any floating debris they accidentally ingest is retained in their stomachs, and this turns them into 'flying dustbins', says Jan van Franeker, the Dutch marine biologist who led the research.
Over the past two years, his team at the Alterra marine laboratory on the Dutch island of Texel has analysed 560 fulmars from eight countries. The birds' stomachs contained an average of 44 plastic scraps, weighing a total of 0.33 grams per bird. One fulmar found in Belgium contained 1603 bits of plastic. Although it was not possible to establish what killed the birds, van Franeker says the plastic may have contributed to some of their deaths by damaging the stomach lining, inhibiting food intake or releasing toxic chemicals.
He suspects that chicks may also suffer by ingesting plastic. In a sample, he found that adults in December, just after the breeding season, had considerably lower levels in their stomachs than fledged chicks in September. Levels were also much less than in pre-breeding adults in April, suggesting that when they regurgitate food for their offspring a lot of plastic comes up with it.
In earlier studies, van Franeker found tiny scraps of plastic in the chicks of Wilson's storm petrels in the Antarctic. He also recovered cigarette lighters, a toothbrush, a golf ball, a toy robot and a tampon applicator from Laysan albatross chicks that died on Hawaii.
In the latest study, the most contaminated fulmars were found alongside the busiest shipping lanes. Contamination of the birds throughout the North Sea was two to four times as bad as that of birds from the more isolated Faroe Islands, for example, while fulmars from the shores of Germany and France had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those from the Scottish islands of Orkney. Van Franeker says that this points to illegal dumping from fishing boats, ships and offshore installations as a major source of the problem.
He also found pieces of balloons, bags, bottles and packaging in the dead birds, suggesting that some of the offending plastic is swept down rivers into the sea, or blown off the land. The new survey was funded by the European Union's 'Save the North Sea' project.
Environmental groups are horrified by the extent to which seabirds have been polluted, and fear that other marine life has been similarly affected. There should be tougher controls on litter, they say, with Friends of the Earth Scotland calling for a reduction in the unnecessary use of plastic.
The plastics industry stresses that it does not condone marine pollution. 'The issue calls for more responsible waste management practices for all materials on the part of the shipping industry,' says Matt Clements from the British Plastics Federation.
Reproduced with kind permission from New Scientist.