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Seabirds and plastic pollution

By Mindi Tonak, Sustainability and Climate Change Campaigner

Marine debris is a major threat to biodiversity worldwide as the impacts are rapidly intensifying.  More than 270 of the world’s marine animal species are affected by marine debris, but the full extent is unknown.  Plastic pollution has spiralled out of control.  It is estimated that 90% of pollution found floating in our oceans is plastic; of which 80% originates from land.  The most common plastic waste found during beach clean-ups are: plastic water bottle caps, plastic bags and plastic pellets.  In the marine environment, plastics break down into small particles that absorb toxic chemicals, which are then ingested by wildlife and thus enter the food chain.

Impacts on Seabirds

Flesh Footed Shearwater Skeleton
Photo By: Ian Hutton

Seabird is a general term given to describe any species of bird that spends a substantial part of its life foraging and/or breeding in the marine environment.  An estimated 44% of all seabird species are affected by ocean pollution.  In our own backyard, the Great Barrier Reef is home to approximately 215 species of birds, 29 of which are seabirds.  Seabirds have a major influence on island ecosystems.  Their droppings fertilise nutrient poor coralline sands, assisting the establishment and maintenance of plants on coral cays.On Lord Howe Island, the Flesh-footed Shearwater population has halved since 1978.  The reason found for this severe drop was due to plastics found in the adult stomachs, after foraging in the Tasman Sea, which were then passed on to their chicks during feeding.  In the 2012 survey of Lord Howe Island shearwaters, fifty chick stomachs were flushed and plastic was found in every single one!  On Heron Island, one-fifth of the Wedge-tailed Shearwater chicks were found to have ingested plastics.

Global Impacts

Plastic bags are said to be the number one man-made item in our oceans spotted by sailors.  It is estimated that there are 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile of ocean.  Plastic fragments are being found in even the most remote locations on earth.  There are now 5 ocean gyres (place where currents converge) in the world where plastic is rapidly accumulating.  Unfortunately, these gyres are also feeding grounds for marine wildlife.

The North Pacific Gyre is the largest and most well-known.  It is estimated that it contains 3.5 million tonnes of trash.  Research from Algalita Marine Research Foundation shows plastic fragments outnumbering zooplankton 40 to 1!  These fragments float just below the ocean surface making cleanup an incredibly complicated task.

Pollution control is necessary in order to protect our reefs from excessive sediment, rubbish and waste that impact critical mangroves, mudflats and inner reef habitats.

Be Part of the Solution

As a society and as individuals, we need to move away from the ‘disposable habits’ mentality and shift towards a more ‘sustainable habits’ mentality.  Thousands of disposable plastic products are made and consumed each day that make life easier, but are not a necessity and as such we could live without them.  What we use for our considered comfort can be viewed as a minefield for marine life.

So how can you be part of the solution?  You can be part of the solution by making some small lifestyle changes such as:

  1. Take reusable bags with you when you go shopping
  2. Buy products with little to no plastic packaging
  3. Reduce the amount of plastic you use by bringing your own metal water bottle, coffee mug, bag, etc.
  4. Recycle as much as possible
  5. Refuse to use plastic single-use items such as plastic grocery bags, tableware and plastic cups
  6. Support efforts to ban the use of plastic shopping bags
  7. Support efforts to introduce container deposit schemes for both glass and plastic bottles
  8. Help out with beach clean-ups!

Permanent link to this article: http://cafnec.org.au/2013/09/17/seabirds-and-plastic-pollution/