If you’ve ever watched a majestic seabird soar over the ocean, you’ll be dismayed to know that many of them are dying – and it’s all our fault.
During the period of our lifetime, a deadly substance has invaded the diets of seabirds, and new research suggests that by 2050, just about every bird will have a tummy full of it.
The substance, of course, is plastic, and the first global assessment of how much of this insidious stuff is being consumed by birds has delivered shocking results.
Currently, 90 per cent of the planet’s seabirds have plastic trapped in their guts, compared to just 5 per cent in the 1960s.
No one knows exactly why, but birds eat brightly coloured plastic items and fragments, possibly mistaking them for prey or because they have genuine food attached to them.
Toothbrushes, cigarette lighters, bottle caps and even a doll’s arm are just some of the items on a seabird’s dinner menu these days, according to Dr Chris Wilcox of CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research.
Plastic can be difficult to excrete and is slow to break down, says Wilcox, and toxins in plastics have been linked to egg-thinning. Sharp, plastic can puncture holes in the gut of the birds.
Another issue is that migratory seabirds, such as albatrosses, eat plastic items, which take up room and make them feel full, but leave them without enough nutrition and energy to make it to their destination. The birds end up dying at sea.
One study on Lord Howe Island found that around 10 per cent of the body weight of some birds is plastic.
Obviously we can’t train birds not to eat plastic, so researchers say the only option is to reduce the amount of plastic that reaches outdoor spaces, including rivers, parks, gutters, beaches and marine debris.
“As birds encounter more plastic they’ll have more plastic in their gut and conversely if they encounter less they’ll have less,” says Wilcox.
Previous research suggests there are as many as 580,000 pieces of plastic polluting each square kilometre of the ocean at any one time.
“The doubling time for plastic is around every 11 years. So between 2015 and 2004 we made as much plastic as we did between the time plastic was invented and 2004,” Wilcox says. “The amount will double again between 2015 and 2026.”
Dr Denise Hardesty from the CSIRO, says waste management systems must be improved to save our seabirds, which are crucial to our ecosystem.
“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,” she says.
She said recent efforts in Europe had resulted in measurable changes in the amount of plastic being found in the stomachs of seabirds.
Plastic: do you love it or hate it? What do you think can be done about this terrible situation?