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The Effects of Plastic Pollution on Seabirds

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The Effects of Plastic Pollution on Seabirds

By Tessa Broholm

Seabirds: Adapted To Life on the Ocean
Seabirds are birds that live primarily on the ocean. Most seabirds live out their days over the open ocean, and far away from humans. To survive out there, seabirds have many unique adaptations.

Two exciting adaptations seabirds generally have are specialized feathers and a desalination system. Desalination is the process of removing salt (saline) from water. A seabird’s desalination system allows them to drink seawater safely by changing it into fresh water.  

Seabirds have waterproof feathers. These feathers both help with buoyancy and add extra insulation to keep them warm.

The Plastic Problem

Every piece of plastic ever made still exists. In the first decade of this century, more plastic was made than had ever been in existence before 2000. An estimated 15-51 trillion pieces of plastic are in the oceans.

Plastic is found on remote islands and in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles away from land.

In the northern Pacific, there is a place called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. It is twice the size of Texas. Even though it is huge, you cannot see it from satellites. This is because it is mostly made of microplastics.

These microplastics are not just a problem in the middle of the ocean and on remote islands. Hundreds of pounds of plastic wash up on our beaches every year.

A beach cleanup in Oregon, for example, removed a whopping 760 pounds from a single beach after a winter storm. For perspective, the United States has about 96,000 miles of coastline. That leaves a lot of beaches to be cleaned up!

Where Does the Plastic Come From?

Plastic is a pervasive material that we all use. Much of it only gets used once, and then is thrown away. You may come into contact with single-use plastics more than you might think.

It takes the form of discarded single-use packaging, like straws and plastic cups. It is packaging for household items, like shampoo and cleaning materials. It can even be clothing. Synthetic materials, like polyester and nylon, shed microplastics when washed.

Want to learn more about plastic, microplastics, and ocean pollution? Check out related articles on the Ocean Blue Environmental News Blog.

Why Do Seabirds Eat Plastic?

Each and every year, hundreds of thousands of seabirds ingest plastic. An estimated one million birds die as a result of plastic every year. This problem has grown explosively.

In the 1960s, less than 5% of birds were found with plastic in their stomachs. Twenty years later, over 80% of birds had plastic in their stomachs. It is projected that by 2050, 99% of seabird species will be ingesting plastic.

Plastic ingestion also affects juveniles that are too young to hunt on their own. Adult birds return to nests with plastic that they have mistaken for food. The chicks ingest the plastic and are less likely to survive to adulthood.

Plastic reduces the volume of the stomach, which often leads to starvation. Dead seabirds are often found with stomachs that are full of plastic waste.

Seabirds mistake plastic debris for prey. Some birds, like albatross, eat fish eggs which are laid on floating debris. When albatross eat the eggs, they also consume plastic. 

Surface feeding seabirds are more likely to ingest plastic. However, diving seabirds, such as puffins, have also been found with plastic in their stomachs.

Other health issues are associated with seabirds ingesting plastic. Seabirds that survive to adulthood are smaller, have shorter wings and bills, and have a smaller body mass.

After ingesting plastic, seabirds may also have other health problems. The presence of plastic impacts the birds’ kidney function. This can cause higher concentrations of uric acid, as well as negatively impact their cholesterol and enzymes.

Some birds may also use marine debris to construct their nests. Nests have been found lined with fishing lines and synthetic ropes. These are combined with natural nest-building materials like seaweed and twigs.

Case Study: Midway Atoll

An atoll is defined as a ring-shaped reef, island, or chain of islands that consists of coral. Located at the far northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago, Midway Atoll is one of the oldest atolls in the world.

Best known for its role as a naval base during World War II and the famous battle at Midway, Midway Atoll is also the world’s largest albatross colony. Every year, nearly 3 million birds nest on the three small islands of Midway Atoll.

Despite being more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, Midway Atoll has a severe plastic pollution problem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates more than 100 pounds of plastic wash up every week.

Approximately one-third of the albatross chicks die every year because of plastic ingestion. Adults mistake brightly colored plastic pieces with prey, which they then feed to their chicks. The chicks are unable to regurgitate the plastic pieces, and many die as a result. 

Even in such a remote location, plastic has devastating effects on the livelihood and survival of albatross and other seabirds. It is essential to recognize that our actions have widespread consequences, and to take steps to mitigate them.

How Can We Help The Ocean

Join beach cleanups! 
You can volunteer at local events to remove litter from beaches and streams. If there are no opportunities being organized around you, make your own group. Gather family and friends to spend a few hours discarding litter. This is a great way to be outside, be socially distanced, and give back to the environment!

Determine your plastic footprint and make changes accordingly.
Look at your consumer choices. How much plastic do you purchase and dispose of every week? Every month? Commit to finding alternatives, and whenever possible, reduce, reuse, and recycle!

Educate your community and incentivize local waste management.
Many people do not know how much plastic ends up in the oceans. Educate your friends, family, and community on this problem and its impact. Get involved with local officials. Talk with them about creating incentives for better waste management programs in your community!

For more ideas on how you can protect the ocean, check out our post 7 Ways to Protect the Ocean.


Author Bio: Tessa Broholm is a biologist who works in conservation. She has worked with amphibians and waterbirds, but she loves all wildlife.

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