90% of seabirds are dining on plastic

08 September 2015

Interview with

Dr Eric van Sebille, Imperial College London

Plastic is everywhere, from our homes to our cars to our food, but where does it Plastic on the beach...all end up once we're done with it? The sad fact is, much of it ends up in our oceans. And with all this plastic floating around, some is inevitably picked up by sea birds. Eric van Sebille, from London's Imperial College, has looked at 60 years worth of data and found that, compared with the 1960s when only 5% of birds were found to have plastic items lodged in their stomachs, today that figure has risen to 90%, and could reach 99% in 2050. Connie Orbach spoke to Eric about the problem....

Erik - We think that these birds, they're foragers, right? They spend a lot of time just hovering above the ocean surface, trying to look for fish. And maybe sometimes, they mistake a lighter for a fish or maybe they're just curios and they want to pick it up.

Connie - And so, why do you think there's so much plastic in their stomach? Where is it all coming from?

Erik - Many people will have heard about what we call the garbage patches - these areas in the open ocean where all the plastic in the ocean at some point accumulates. But what we found is actually that there's not very many seabirds foraging there, not very many seabirds eating the plastic out of the ocean. So, most of the harm due to the plastic is actually done in other regions closer to our coastlines.

Connie - What does it mean that these birds have plastic in their stomach?

Erik - We don't really know what the plastic does to the seabirds, but we're pretty sure that it is harmful. It can be either from gut blockage or actually, wounding them internally. The other thing that can happen is that it's actually quite a lot of plastics in some cases. In some cases, we found up to 8 % of body mass in the stomachs of seabirds. For a grown person, that would be 6 kilos. So, that's like walking around with two big cats everywhere you go. And then thirdly, it might be that there's actually toxins in the plastics itself and these toxins might leach out in the birds.

Connie - The idea of carrying two cats around does sound really annoying. When I think of seabirds - I think of seagulls which in the UK are kind of pests. They steal everyone's chips by the seaside - why should I care about what's happening to these seagulls?

Erik - So first of all, although seagulls don't really have a good name, many of the other birds are beautiful. Think about penguins, think about albatrosses. But I think more importantly, the seabirds are almost literally the canary in a coal mine here. If seabirds pick up plastics, we can be pretty certain that other creatures also pick up plastics. It's just that seabirds have always been easy to study. They nest on land so the literature on seabirds goes back much, much longer than many other animals.

Connie - Is there a possibility that the seabirds could be picking up some of this plastic through the animals that they're eating as supposed to just directly?

Erik - Probably, that's true but from our studies, it was really hard to entangle that. So again, that's something that we really need to understand. We roughly know how much plastic gets into the ocean. We don't know where that plastic is, and where worryingly, some of it might get into animals, in what we call the biota. So, the plastic might actually reside within birds, within fish, within plankton, within mussels. All of these creatures might actually take up plastic.

Connie - I mean, some of the things you mentioned then - mussels and fish, they're the things that we eat as well - is there a possibility that we're also taking in plastics through the food chain?

Erik - Yes, although nobody really knows how big this is, how much plastic we really are taking in through the food chain. I think we have to realise that we live in a plastic world. Plastic is a fantastic material, right? It is durable, it is lightweight, it is waterproof. It is everything you want from a material that's so versatile. The problem is just how we manage the waste of plastic. We need to make sure that it doesn't get into the ocean, that it doesn't reach natural environments.

Connie - So, you're saying that it's not that we should be using less plastic. It's that we should be managing it better.

Erik - I think we should be more aware that if we use plastic, we should take care of how that plastic is discarded in the end.

Connie - Then this figure, this 99% of seabirds in 2050, do you think we can turn this around?

Erik - Yes. One study reported that after there was a big effort in the European Union to reduce the amount of plastic getting into the ocean, actually, there was a significant drop in the amount of plastic in seabirds in the North Sea. So, that's a great news story. It means that if you stop, the birds will get less harm, they will rebound.

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