They discovered that, in 1960, plastic was found in the stomach of less than 5% of individual seabirds. By 2010 that had risen to 80%.
The researchers predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99% of the world’s seabird species by 2050, based on current trends.
“For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species – and the results are striking,” says Chris Wilcox, senior research scientist at Australia peak science agency CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division.
“We predict, using historical observations, that 90% of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution.”
Researchers from the CSIRO and Imperial College London assessed the threat of plastic for seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins by looking at research from 1962 to 2012.
Plastics eaten by birds come from bags, bottle caps, and plastic fibres from synthetic clothes, which have washed out into the ocean from urban rivers, sewers and waste deposits.
Birds mistake the brightly coloured items for food, or swallow them by accident, and this causes gut impaction, weight loss and sometimes even death.
Dr Denise Hardesty from CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere said seabirds were excellent indicators of ecosystem health.
“Finding such widespread estimates of plastic in seabirds is borne out by some of the fieldwork we’ve carried out where I’ve found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single seabird,” Dr Hardesty said.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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