Plastic in Seabirds' Bellies Shows Alarming Increase in Pollution in the Pacific Ocean

By Chelsea Whyte on July 5, 2012 9:08 PM EDT

plastic from the belly of a seabird
Non-food stomach content found in a northern fulmar in the University of British Columbia study. (Photo: StephanieAvery-Gomm, UBC)

Plastic pollution of the coast of North America is increasing drastically, according to a new study published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, which catalogued the stomach contents of seabirds.

Northern fulmars are seabirds that find food exclusively at sea, and when they happen to ingest plastic instead of plankton, it can stay in their body a long time, making them good indicators of the levels of litter at sea.

They also don't regurgitate the plastic they consume from the surface of the ocean. Ingesting it can directly kill the birds or cause gastrointestinal blockage, lacerations and reduced feeding, according to the Victoria Times Colonist.

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A research group from the University of British Columbia examined the stomach contents of 67 beached northern fulmars from the coasts of British Columbia down through Washington and Oregon. They found that 92.5 per cent had plastics - such as twine, Styrofoam and candy wrappers - in their stomach, with an average of nearly 37 pieces found in each bird. One bird was found with 454 pieces of plastic in its stomach.

"The average adult northern fulmar weighs five pounds, or 2.25 kilograms," said study leader Stephanie Avery-Gomm. The average weight of plastic in each bird's belly was 0.385 grams, which she said, "may seem inconsequential to us, [but] it's the equivalent of about five per cent of their body mass. It would be like a human carrying 50 grams of plastic in our stomach - about the weight of 10 quarters."

Plastic pollution hasn't been considered a problem off the north-western coast of the continent, despite its close proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - an area of concentrated plastic pollution drawn together by ocean currents in the middle of the North Pacific. But these findings raise concern, researchers said.

"Like the canary in the coal mine, northern fulmars are sentinels of plastic pollution in our oceans," said Avery-Gomm. "Their stomach content provides a 'snapshot' sample of plastic pollution from a large area of the northern Pacific Ocean."

The results of the study, published online in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, suggest plastic pollution should be monitored annually and people need to become more aware of what they're tossing out,  Avery-Gomm told the Vancouver Sun. "Anything that gets into a river, anything that gets into the sewage system, any-thing that ends up on a beach is probably headed straight for the ocean."

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