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No where to hide from trash

Birds continue to die as oceans become one big garbage can for discarded plastics

Photo of nesting Laysan Albatrosses surrounded by plastic trash on Midway Island

Plastic refuse washed ashore, competes with Laysan Albatross nesting areas on Midway Island in the Pacific Ocean. (Jay Holcomb/IBRRC)

If you've ever walked the beaches after a winter storm, you can see the remnants of our throw it away society. Bits of plastic debris litter the shore: Bottle caps, toys, cigarette lighters, fishing line and other plastic garbage. Scientists are now documenting this surge of plastic trash that leaves a wake of death and disease that directly affects seabirds.

In many areas of the globe, birds inadvertently feed on plastic floating on the water, mistaking it for food, and many times this ingestion leads to death and even the death of their young. (See video to right)

A recent report by scientists studying the stomach content of Laysan Albatross chicks on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean revealed disturbing results: Forty percent of Laysan Albatross chicks die before fledging. Necropsies of the chick's stomachs found them filled with plastic trash. (See photo below)

plastics inside stomach albatross

Plastic found in belly of albatross

Large plastic detritus such as bottles and packaging has well-known effects on sea life, strangling birds and fish and transporting alien species to new waters. And millimeter-sized plastic pellets - the building blocks of larger products - clog US harbors and soak up toxic chemicals from seawater, poisoning the creatures that swallow them.

Plastic pellets are also magnets for toxic chemicals like DDT and PCBs, becoming, in effect, poison pills. Japanese researchers found that concentrations of these chemicals were as much as a million times higher than in the water. Plastics themselves can leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals like biphenyl.

"Unlike many discarded materials, most plastics in common use do not biodegrade. Instead they "photodegrade," a process whereby sunlight breaks them into progressively smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers. In fact, the degradation eventually yields individual molecules of plastic, but these are still too tough for most anything—even such indiscriminate consumers as bacteria—to digest. And for the past fifty years or so, plastics that have made their way into the Pacific Ocean have been fragmenting and accumulating as a kind of swirling sewer in the North Pacific subtropical gyre."

Across the Pacific Ocean, Plastics, Plastics, Everywhere by Charles Moore, Natural History v.112, n.9, Nov03

Pelican caught with hook in beak

A discarded hook and fishing line can leave birds injured for life. This pelican was lucky, it was captured by IBRRC and the hook was removed. (Valeria Ruoppolo/IBRRC/IFAW)

Especially lethal is discarded fishing equipment. Millions of tons of cut line, lines with hooks, and nets litter our oceans causing cause slow, painful deaths to everything from tiny seabirds to whales. Many of the birds that come to IBRRC’s rehabilitation hospitals are impacted by fishing line and hooks, having ingested and/or debilitated by carelessly discarded monofilament line that has wrapped around their limbs and wings. See: California"s Fishing Gear Recycling Program

Also see: Discovery News: Cigarettes Top Trash List at Waterways

What we know

• Plastic water bottles take 450 years to decompose
• Fishing lines and nets can take up to 600 years to decompose.
• Plastic bags or balloons in the ocean are dangerous. (They can look like a jellyfish meal to a sea turtle)

What we all can do:

• Reduce your use of disposable plastic products
• Reuse and recycle what you can.
• Buy reusable grocery bags to cut down on plastic bag use.
• Tell others about the dangers of marine debris.
• Pick up litter.
• Volunteer for beach and stream clean-ups.
• Remind others not release balloons into the atmosphere.

To be part of the world's largest, one-day volunteer clean up held every September, sign up for The International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). (Also see: California Coastal Cleanup info)

Photo ocean cleanup

California Coastal Cleanup day is every September

More you can do:

Smokers, keep your butts all to yourselves: A plea

10 Things You Can Do To Save the Oceans

For more info, please see these recent reports:

video link image

Heal the Bay: Fishing gear hurts wild birds: CBS-TV, September 2007

Abandoned fishing gear can be devastating to ocean life, NPR, June 2007

Plague of Plastic Chokes the Seas: Los Angeles Times, August 2006

Beach Junk Threatening Environment, Wildlife ABC-TV, San Francisco report

The problem with marine debris: California Coastal Commission's report


 

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