Majority of the world seabird species have plastic in their gut and 99 per cent will have gobbled down plastic by 2050, according to a new study.
Researchers assessed how widespread the threat of plastic is for the world’s seabirds, including albatrosses, shearwaters and penguins, and found the majority of seabird species have plastic in their gut.
Based on analysis of published studies since the early 1960s, the researchers found that plastic is increasingly common in seabird’s stomachs.
In 1960, plastic was found in the stomach of less than 5 per cent of individual seabirds, rising to 80 per cent by 2010.
The researchers predict that plastic ingestion will affect 99 per cent of the world’s seabird species by 2050, based on current trends.
The scientists estimate that over 90 per cent of all seabirds alive today have eaten plastic of some kind.
This includes 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.
“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,” senior research scientist at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Oceans and Atmosphere Dr Chris Wilcox said.
“We predict, using historical observations, that 90 per cent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution,” said Wilcox.
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,” Hardesty said.
The researchers found plastics will have the greatest impact on wildlife where they gather in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.
Dr Erik van Sebille, from the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, said the plastics had the most devastating impact in the areas where there was the greatest diversity of species.
“We are very concerned about species such as penguins and giant albatrosses, which live in these areas,” van Sebille said.
“While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here,” said van Sebille.
The study was published in the journal PNAS.