Friday, September 19, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Seabird stomach contents show plastic pollution on the rise

Researchers found an average of 36.8 pieces of plastic in the stomach of each bird. One bird had 454 pieces inside.

Seabird stomach contents show plastic pollution on the rise

Non-food stomach content found in a northern fulmar in the UBC study. (Photo: StephanieAvery-Gomm, UBC)<br />
Non-food stomach content found in a northern fulmar in the UBC study. (Photo: StephanieAvery-Gomm, UBC)

The northern fulmar, a relative of the albatross that forages for all its food at sea, turns out to be an excellent indicator of marine plastic pollution.

To the detriment of the bird, evidently.

Apparently, they eat a lot of plastic and retain it in their bodies for long periods of time. Analysis of dead fulmars' stomach contents has been used as an indicator of plastic pollution in the North Sea since the 1980s.

Now, a group of researchers led by a zoologist at the University of British Columbia has determined -- by examining stomach contents of fulmars off the northwest coast of North America -- that pollution there is nearly as bad as that in the North Sea. It has increased substantially in the last four decades, they found.

The research group performed necropsies -- the wildlife equivalent of autopsies -- on 67 northern fulmars that had died ashore or washed ashore. They found that 92.5 per cent of the birds had twine, Styrofoam candy wrappers and other plastics in their stomachs. The average was 36.8 pieces per bird -- although one bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its stomach -- and the average weight of the plastic was 0.385 grams per bird.

“The average adult northern fulmar weighs 800 grams,” said lead researcher Stephanie Avery-Gomm in a university press release. “While 0.385 grams in a bird may seem inconsequential to us, it’s the equivalent of about 0.05 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.”

“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,” says Avery-Gomm, “But we’ve found similar amounts and incident rates of plastic in beached northern fulmars here as those in the North Sea. This indicates it is an issue which warrants further study.”

I've written stories about plastics and wildlife before, and criticism I often hear to statements that plastic pollution kills wildlife is: How do you know the plastic is what killed it? Where are the studies?

Well, these birds were dead. And while it may be tough to prove one way or the other whether the plastic the bird ingested actually killed it, you can't say this is good.

For a compelling view of plastic pollution and seabirds, I highly recommend the work of Chris Jordan, a photographer who has been documenting the deaths of albatrosses on Midway Atoll.

"For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of our consumerism and runaway industrial growth. Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here," he writes on his website.

The still photos, which I don't have permission to use here, are stunning and unsettling. He's working on a movie. The trailer is below.  

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
About this blog

GreenSpace is about environmental issues and green living. Bauers also writes a biweekly GreenSpace column about environmental health issues for the Inquirer’s Sunday “Health” section.

Sandy Bauers is the environment reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where she has worked for more than 20 years as a reporter and editor. She lives in northern Chester County with her husband, two cats, a large vegetable garden and a flock of pet chickens.

Reach Sandy at sbauers@phillynews.com.

Sandy Bauers Inquirer GreenSpace Columnist
Latest Health Videos
Also on Philly.com:
Stay Connected