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Plastics in seabirds: A pervasive and growing problem that requires global action

You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks choking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a...

While we were standing admiring the view a waved albatross walked right past and leapt off the cliff. Magnificent!

You have likely seen the pictures of albatross chicks choking on plastics. These images are tough to look at and the death these birds suffer from ingesting plastics is gruesome and painful. Albatross consume a whole range of plastics that float in the ocean, from cigarette lighters, to toothbrushes to shards of plastics from a huge variety of other plastic products. As a conservation organization, Ocean Conservancy is deeply troubled by the impact of plastics on these magnificent birds. But how pervasive is this problem, really? A new paper in the peer-reviewed journal PNAS gives us a disturbing answer. It turns out plastics in seabirds is a very big deal. It is global, pervasive and increasing. And it has to be stopped.

The research published today was done by Drs. Chris Wilcox and Denise Hardesty from CSIRO in Australia and Dr. Erik van Sebille from Imperial College in London. It is the result of an independent scientific Working Group convened by Ocean Conservancy at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is the same group that recently demonstrated that 8 million tons (17 billion pounds) of plastics enters the ocean each year, much of it from Asia. This week’s publication shows the consequences of this plastic avalanche. Using global historical data from publications over the last few decades on the presence of plastics in the stomachs of 135 species of seabirds from all around the world, the authors show that plastic contamination is increasing and they predict that 99% of all seabird species will be eating plastic by 2050 unless something is done to stem the tide. Surprisingly, seabirds that may be most at risk of plastics are those that live at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, far from the well-known “garbage patches at the center of the ocean’s gyres. While plastics are less abundant there compared to the gyres, this is where seabirds are most common – and thus at greatest risk of exposure to plastics. Contamination rates have increased from about 26% historically to approximately 65% today; if the trend continues, nearly all species of seabird – and almost 95% of all individuals – will be exposed to plastics by 2050. So this isn’t just about albatross; it’s about ALL seabirds including penguins, fulmars, auklets, prions, storm petrels and the many other species that spend the majority of their lives living over the ocean.

At Ocean Conservancy, we conclude it is time to move from debating about whether plastics in the ocean is a problem to aggressively advancing solutions to stop it. This important new paper by Wilcox and colleagues is just the latest in a growing list of publications that show that large amounts of plastics are 1) leaking into the ocean from land, 2) distributed to all corners of the ocean, 3) contaminating much of the food web, and 4) negatively impacting the health of many of these species, including the fish we eat. Now we know that plastics will contaminate all the world’s seabirds too in a matter of decades if we don’t act decisively. Ocean Conservancy is fully committed to advancing solutions that work at a scale needed to actually solve this problem. Our Trash Free Seas Alliance® – a group of industry leaders, conservationists, and independent scientists – is working together to determine how to improve basic waste management infrastructure to stem the tide of plastics coming from the half dozen developing world economies that alone account for over half of the ocean plastics problem. The TFS Alliance is also working with global consulting firm McKinsey & Company to uncover the fundamental economic constraints to financing these needed solutions. Armed with this new knowledge, Ocean Conservancy is bringing industry and government around the table to ensure they embrace their shared responsibility to solve this problem.

While our TFS Alliance works to advance a global solution, individuals still have a huge role to play. Choices consumers make to minimize the use of disposable plastics (like using refillable water bottles or bringing reusable shopping bags to the market) make a big difference – and importantly send a strong signal to the plastics industry that they must play a leading role in dealing with the end-of-life of the products from which they profit. We invite you to participate in the upcoming 30th anniversary of the International Coastal Cleanup – the world’s largest volunteer effort on behalf of clean beaches and healthy oceans. Click here to get more information about a cleanup near you. And be sure to bring your friends and family, knowing that you will be one of hundreds of thousands of volunteers keeping beaches and waterways around the world free of plastics on Saturday, September 19.

Today’s publication by Dr. Wilcox and other members of the NCEAS Working Group clearly highlights just how bad the ocean plastic pollution problem has become. But we must not sit idly by as the world’s seabirds slowly and inexorably become overwhelmed by society’s reliance on plastics. Scientists, the private sector and global citizens must work together to fight the growing onslaught of plastic pollution in the ocean and help ensure a healthy ocean upon which all of us – including the world’s seabirds – depend.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo George Leonard
George Leonard is Chief Scientist at Ocean Conservancy. A long-time scuba diver, George knew he wanted to be a marine biologist at the age of 12 when he first watched Jacques Cousteau's TV special on the sleeping sharks of Yucatan in 1975. During his graduate work, he logged over 400 dives in 3 years, studying California's kelp forests, the undersea equivalent of a tropical rain forest.