Plastics are now being recycled into the bellies of Seabirds
Text: Sitaraah Joshi
Lord Howe Island is located over six hundred kilometers home to the oceanic species of Fresh-footed shearwater birds. Their name expresses the elegant motion of cutting through the grooves of waves on tense, stretched wings. The dark grey, slender-billed birds range from twelve to thirty-three inches in size. Often times, they can be found nesting in the burrows of coastal hills and islands of the Northern Atlantic region, the Mediterranean as well as throughout the majority of the Pacific.
Each day, before dawn, the shearwaters make their way to feed at sea and return back to Lord Howe Island at dusk. They breed in great colonies on the floors of forests in the periods between September and May. Afterwhich, they migrate to different regions. Shearwater birds are ocean predators, primarily feeding on seafood. But when there’s plastic added into the water, it means that the birds cannot differentiate plastic from food. And thus, they end up eating it.
It is revealed that 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten plastic (PNAS, 2015). Parent birds blindly feed little pieces of plastic to their young, often mistaking the floating particles for squid and fish eggs. Little chicks appear from their burrows, with meager levels of nutrition as their stomachs brim with plastic debris. Such a consistently poor diet has crippled the health and functionality of shearwaters, making the journey from home to sea an arduous one.
Enter Jennifer Lavers: a talented marine scientist working diligently to initiate change in this vicious cycle of disposable plastic affecting animals. Her job includes heading Adrift Labs and being a Lecturer of Marine Science at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania. Her research at Adrift Labs pays attention to using wild species (like birds) as indicators of physical and chemical pollution chemical and physical pollution in marine and freshwater regions. Her work with the shearwater birds specifically has been recorded in several documentary films such as BLUE, A plastic ocean and Drowning in Plastic.
On these feature documentaries, she presents the course through which shearwaters came to ingest the plastic. However, what was truly heartbreaking to witness, was the sheer amount of plastic stored in their bodies — all of which was regurgitated in a painful process. The method, called lavage, flushes out the stomach of the bird by sticking a tube down its digestive tract to ensure that all the contents resurface. She pulled out 90 pieces of plastic from a chick’s body at one shot. And this number is still relatively lower than that of the average. Some scientists have pulled out up to 200 to 250 pieces via regurgitation or from dead birds.
If we continue to maintain the same careless attitude towards our plastic usage, by 2050, it is estimated that the number of these seabirds affected by plastic will rise to a staggering 99 percent. The outrageous amounts of marine debris originate primarily from human waste. Waste can range from anything to everything, including toothbrushes, bottle caps, lids, straws, matches, bags and all sorts of other tattered bits and pieces. In fact, the presence of plastic in our ecosystem is so monumental, that it can be found even in the very depths of certain parts of the ocean. Seabirds have been, and continue to be especially vulnerable to this kind of pollution. And consequently, their numbers too have shaken by the disastrous impact of plastic.
So what can we do to help elevate the suffering animals in our ecosystem? Several of the following suggestions might seem familiar and redundant, having heard the same things over and over again. However, it cannot be stressed enough that these are also some of the easiest ways to cut down on waste. By starting small, we can induce a significant change in mitigating global plastic usage and disposal.
How about starting by cutting down on obvious pollutants in our daily lives, like plastic bags. Disposable bags can easily be replaced by stronger, more durable bags made from cloth. Not only will you be cutting down on unnecessary plastic waste, but you will also be saving your very own taxpayer money. For example, the state of California concentrates around 25 million USD moving plastic bags to landfill each year, and an additional 8.5 million dollars to discard scattered bags from streets. Your area’s budget and marine life, both prosper when plastic bags are not used.
Another big culprit responsible for marine pollution is straws. You may think — straws that are thrown away as trash could not possibly enter the oceans, right? This is where we forget that there is still the careless littering of light plastic items. Due to their lightness, they are able to float and be blown away by the wind into drainage systems and marine areas. And all gutter and storm drains lead to our oceans. The initiative of using metal straws over plastic ones has taken the world by storm over the last couple of years. Not only are they more durable, but they are also safer, eco-friendlier and cost less overall.
Lastly, a friendly suggestion that could help preserve marine life is to switch from current products to biodegradable ones. As mentioned, small items like toothbrushes often end up sinking to the bottom of Seabird’s bellies, hindering their digestion. By swapping out plastic handled brushes to bamboo or wood-based ones, they used materials that can easily be chucked into a compost pile instead of the trash after use.
Hopefully, by pursuing one small measure by another, we can try to restore a more sustainable and environmentally friendly habitat for the fellow animal community.
To read more exclusive content like this, check out the new issue of the ASIAN DIVER Magazine!