Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Plastics killing seabirds all over Pacific

Laysan albatross on their Hawaiian nesting islands are the signature species for the devastating impacts of plastics in the marine environment, but increasingly, the dead albatross are not alone.
The haunting image of the problem is dead albatross chicks, their burst bellies jammed full of plastic lighters, bottle caps, discarded toothbrushes and other multicolored debris.

(Image: A northern fulmar, this one photographed in 2008 in Scotland. Credit: Dick Daniels,

But new studies on a Pacific seabird that comes ashore in the Pacific Northwest is also showing dramatically high plastic contents. Some northern fulmars have as much as 5 percent of their body weight in plastic in their bellies. 

These birds, known to science as Fulmarus glacialis, don’t feed exactly the same way albatross do, but there’s plenty of plastic to go around. In fulmars, researchers found twine, candy wrappers and styrofoam.

Let’s digress a little about the scope of the problem.

The albatross chicks die so full of plastic that they can’t take in nutrition, but it’s not just mechanical fullness that kills sealife. Also entanglement—turtles and seals trapped by abandoned nets and coils of rope—and the chemicals released by the plastics they eat.

“Microplastics are both abundant and widespread within the marine environment, found in their highest concentrations along coastlines and within mid-ocean gyres. Ingestion of microplastics has been demonstrated in a range of marine organisms, a process which may facilitate the transfer of chemical additives or hydrophobic waterborne pollutants to biota,” says a report in Marine Pollution Bulletin, by  Matthew Cole and Pennie Lindequeof Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Claudia Halsband of the High North Research Centre for Climate and the Environment in Norway, and Tamara Galloway of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. 

If the plastic is big enough it can trap and snare them, if it’s smaller it can choke them, and even when it’s microscopic, it’s not gone.

“Unlike inorganic fines present in sea water, microplastics concentrate persistent organic pollutants (POPs) by partition. The relevant distribution coefficients for common POPs are several orders of magnitude in favour of the plastic medium,” writes Anthony Andrady in the August 2011 issue of thesame journal

Back to the northern fulmars, also called Arctic fulmars. We don’t see them in Hawai`i since they cling to higher latitudes and colder climates. But they are in the same family as the Hawaiian shearwaters and petrels: 

Researchers in the North Sea have used stomach contents of fulmars to document high levels of plastics in that environment. We have long known that the Pacific is also a dumping ground—even before last year’s Japan tsunami scoured island coastlines and dumped their debris into the sea. Now research on northern fulmars in the Pacific is confirming what we already knew from albatross chicks—the plastic problem is massive.

“We quantified the stomach contents of 67 fulmars from beaches in the eastern North Pacific in 2009–2010 and found that 92.5% of fulmars had ingested an average of 36.8 pieces, or 0.385 g of plastic. Plastic ingestion in these fulmars is among the highest recorded globally,” says the paper's abstract.

"Despite the close proximity of the 'Great Pacific Garbage Patch,' an area of concentrated plastic pollution in the middle of the North Pacific gyre, plastic pollution has not been considered an issue of concern off our coast. But we've found similar amounts and incident rates of plastic in beached northern fulmars here as those in the North Sea,” says author Stephanie Avery-Gomm , a zoologist at the University of British Columbia.

Oh, the euphemism "beached?" It generally means "washed up dead."

Here’s the journal reference for that article: Stephanie Avery-Gomm, Patrick D. O’Hara, Lydia Kleine, Victoria Bowes, Laurie K. Wilson, Karen L. Barry. Northern fulmars as biological monitors of trends of plastic pollution in the eastern North Pacific. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2012; DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2012.04.017

© Jan TenBruggencate 2012

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