SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The devastating impact of plastic debris on marine life is far worse than previously believed.
Nine out of 10 seabirds have plastic in their guts, a new study estimates. In 1960, the estimate was only 5% of individual seabirds. Now, researchers predict by the year 2050, the number will be 99 percent.
A team of Australian researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Their article was titled, “Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing.”
The scientists estimated that 90% of all the seabirds alive have eaten plastic, according to the CSIRO press release.
“This includes bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibers from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits.”
According to International Bird Rescue plastic ingestion leads to “death and even the death of their young.” Pieces of plastic are magnets for toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs and “they effectively become poison pills.”
“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,” lead researcher Dr. Chris Wilcox said. “We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”
Co-author, Dr Denise Hardesty said seabirds are an “excellent indicator 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,” Hardesty said. She said the birds often mistake plastic for fish eggs.
The huge patch of debris known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch floating in the North Pacific Ocean has raised concern for marine wildlife among environmentalists. But the scientists in this recent study said very few animals live near it. Their research revealed plastics have had the most devastating impact on wildlife in the Southern Ocean, around southern Australia, South Africa and South America.
“We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas,” said co-author Dr. Erik van Sebille.
Still, researchers said there is still time to mitigate the impact of plastic on seabirds by improving waste management.
“Even simple measures can make a difference, such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra fee to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers.
“Efforts to reduce plastics losses into the environment in Europe resulted in measurable changes in plastic in seabird stomachs with less than a decade, which suggests that improvements in basic waste management can reduce plastic in the environment in a really short time.”
CBSSF.com writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.