Rising rate of plastics ingested by birds off the coast of Washington

Jul 31, 2012

A new study suggests there’s been a dramatic increase in plastic pollution off the coast of the Pacific Northwest over the past 40 years.

That’s after analysis of trash ingested by seabirds in Washington and British Columbia.

The study looks at plastic eaten by northern Fulmars, a gull-like bird that forages at the surface of the ocean, scooping up things like squid or fish eggs. Stephanie Avery-Gomm, a researcher in the zoology department at the University of British Columbia, says those feeding habits make fulmars especially vulnerable to ingesting plastic that’s floating along too.

“And they don’t throw it up very easily, so, when they die and wash up on beaches, their stomach contents is a snap shot of how much plastic pollution there is in the area where they were foraging over the last several weeks or months.”

Fulmars have long been used as a barometer for plastic pollution in Europe’s North Sea.  Avery-Gomm says she and five other researchers wanted to see what the seabirds were indicating about plastic pollution in our region. So they studied 67 birds that washed up between Long Beach and Vancouver Island. She says the results are troubling – and nearly equivalent to levels found in the North Sea.

“We found that 92% of the birds that we looked at of the northern fulmar had ingested plastic, which is really high – but not just that – the amount of plastic that they ingested was really high. So we expected to see a little bit of plastic, based on early research done up in Alaska, but nowhere near what we actually found.“

They found almost ten times as much plastic by weight as a similar study showed 40 years ago. It’s mostly hard plastic from everyday objects such as Tupperware containers that have broken down into small pellets.

The researchers say they are still refining their science. But their hope is to use this data as a baseline for further studies, to help document, for example, how much plastic washes up with tsunami debris from Japan.