Plastic will be found in 99% of seabirds by 2050, study finds

Red footed booby and plastic
© Red-footed booby on Christmas Island (Photo: CSIRO)

Analysis reveals plastic in many seabirds’ stomachs now, will get worse. But simple measures could change the course.

From the “World Gone Terribly Wrong” file, researchers from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Imperial College London have found that the majority of the world's seabirds – including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins – have plastic in their gut.

Looking at published studies since the early 1960s, the researchers found that plastic – including that from bags, bottle caps, and synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits – is increasingly common in seabirds' stomachs. In 1960, less than five percent of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs; they put that number at 90 percent today.

"We predict, using historical observations, that 90 percent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution,” said Dr. Chris Wilcox, study leader and senior research scientist at CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere.

They predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 percent of the world's seabird species by 2050.

"For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species – and the results are striking," said Wilcox.

Dr. Denise Hardesty, study co-author, said seabirds were excellent indicators of ecosystem health.

"Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we've carried out where I've found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird," said Hardesty.

The poor birds mistake brightly colored plastic bits for food or accidentally swallow them, leading to gut impaction, weight loss. Sometimes the result is fatal. The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.

Another study co-author, Dr. Erik van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, noted that the plastics were the most harmful in areas where there was the greatest diversity of species.

"We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas," van Sebille said.

"While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here."

But as dreadful as this all is, Hardesty said there is still time to change the impact plastic has on seabirds.

"Improving waste management can reduce the threat plastic is posing to marine wildlife," she said.

"Even simple measures can make a difference. Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measureable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade," Hardesty added, "which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time."

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