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The carcass of an albatross chick that was fed plastic by its parents.CreditClaire Fackler/PNAS
SEPTEMBER 1, 2015

Seabirds like albatross, petrels and penguins face a growing threat from plastic waste in parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans, according to a new study published on Monday.

Brightly colored floating bits – debris that includes items such as discarded flip-flops, water bottles and popped balloons – often attract seabirds, which confuse them for food like krill or shrimp. Many die from swallowing the plastic.

The problem received some national attention in 2013 with the documentary “Midway,” which showed a remote island in the Pacificcovered in corpses of baby albatross. Their exposed innards revealed lighters, bottle caps and toothbrushes mistakenly fed to them by their parents.

The number of incidents like these is rapidly increasing, according to the new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers from Australia and Britain analyzed a number of papers from 1962 to 2012 that had surveyed 135 seabirds. The team found that fewer than 10 percent of seabirds had traces of plastic in their stomachs during the 1970s and 1980s. They estimated that today that number has increased to about 90 percent of seabirds. And they predict that 99 percent of all seabirds will swallow plastic in 2050.

For Erik Van Sebille, an oceanographer at Imperial College London and co-author of the paper, the most surprising findings from their analysis were the locations where seabirds were most likely to ingest plastic.

Researchers had previously thought that giant garbage patchesswirling between Hawaii and California were the most likely places where birds would eat the waste. Instead, most seabirds are ingesting plastic at hotspots that stretch from Australia and New Zealand to South Africa and Chile.

Boris Worm, a marine biologist from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who was not involved in the research, said that seabird deaths are the most visible sign of a larger threat that plastics pose to marine wildlife like fish, whales and sea turtles.

“It’s an indicator that our world is literally getting clogged by plastic,” he said.

The study’s authors suggest stricter regulations on plastic production, consumption and disposal, as well as the development of plastics that degrade in seawater.

Global plastic production has doubled every 11 years since the 1950s and currently tops 300 million tons per year. Currently more thanseven million tons of plastic trash end up in the ocean, often a result of improper dumping into rivers that wash into the sea.
—NICHOLAS ST. FLEUR