Pieces of plastic debris will be inside every seabird by the year 2050, according to a team of scientists.
In a study published in the peer-edited journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), scientists Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille, and Britta Denise Hardesty, all of whom worked with of UC Santa Barbara's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, propose that the culprit is marine pollution, namely plastic found in places like floating landfills. (To put it in perspective, the largest landfill on earth is located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – it's nicknamed "The Great Pacific Garbage Patch" – and is as big as the state of Texas.)
"Plastic pollution in the ocean is a rapidly emerging global environmental concern, with high concentrations (up to 580,000 pieces per km2) and a global distribution, driven by exponentially increasing production," cautions the team. "Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to this type of pollution and are widely observed to ingest floating plastic. [...]Impacts are greatest at the southern boundary of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, a region thought to be relatively pristine. Although evidence of population-level impacts from plastic pollution is still emerging, our results suggest that this threat is geographically widespread, pervasive, and rapidly increasing."
Based on antecedent stats, which posited that 59 percent out of 135 previously tested species subjects "reported in the literature" had ingested plastic between 1962 and 2012, the UC-Santa Cruz team theorized that the rate of ingestion would have affected 90 percent of those subjects. The team then used a model for projections:
"Using these results from the literature, we tuned our risk model and were able to capture 71 percent of the variation in plastic ingestion based on a model including exposure, time, study method, and body size. We used this tuned model to predict risk across seabird species at the global scale. [...] We predict that plastics ingestion is increasing in seabirds, that it will reach 99 percent of all species by 2050, and that effective waste management can reduce this threat."
These models also led them to predict an area that will have a high risk of being severely devastated: the Tasman Sea, located between Australia and New Zealand. Former studies defined this area as "having low anthropogenic pressures and concentrations of marine debris," i.e., very little garbage.
"We've known for some time that the magnitude of plastic pollution is daunting," commented NCEAS Director Frank Davis, who oversaw the progress of the study. "[It's] important in revealing the pervasive impact of that plastic on seabirds."
Photo: David Patte, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service | Flickr