The vast majority of seabirds in the north-east Atlantic are likely to have eaten plastic due to the growing problem of materials dumped at sea, a report by a team of Highlands-based researchers has warned.
Researchers found that of 34 seabird species investigated, 74 per cent have ingested plastic.
They warned that more needs to be done to counter the threat caused by marine plastic pollution or a unique ecosystem could be damaged beyond repair.
An estimated eight million tonnes of plastic gets into world oceans every year, killing and injuring marine wildlife such as seabirds, dolphins, whales and turtles. Eighty per cent reaches the ocean via rivers.
Plastic production has increased 20-fold since 1964, and the amount ending up in the sea has reached shocking proportions.
The paper, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, was written by scientists at North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute, part of the University of the Highland and Islands, and the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science.
The authors collated data from all known studies reporting instances of plastic ingestion and nest incorporation in seabirds around northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland, Svalbard, the Faroes and Iceland.
Dr Nina O’Hanlon, a seabird ecologist at the Thurso-based Environmental Research Institute, was one of the scientists who worked on the project.
She said: “Marine plastic pollution is an increasing and global environmental issue which poses a major threat to marine biodiversity. The production of plastic continues to rise with millions of tons entering the oceans each year. Seabirds can ingest plastic, become entangled in it or incorporate it into their nests, causing impacts which may have negative consequences on reproduction and survival.”
Dr Alex Bond, RSPB senior conservation scientist, said: “The northeastern Atlantic Ocean is home to internationally important breeding populations of seabirds and an amazing array of other marine life. Solutions to plastic pollution in the oceans require concerted action at its source – 80 per cent of marine litter is thought to come from land – especially by producers and users.
“The properties which make plastics desirable are the very things which make it problematic.”
Dr Bond added: “Due to its low cost, approximately half of all plastic items are produced for single-use. Plastic never breaks down, it only breaks up, into smaller fragments which remain in the environment and, as its density varies, it can be found throughout the water column, increasing the number of species which come into contact with it.”
While the team’s research highlights some concerning statistics, its report concludes that more coordinated, comprehensive and detailed investigations are required on plastic ingestion and nest incorporation to assess the full impact it is having on seabird populations.
Dr O’Hanlon added: “In the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, an area of international importance for seabirds, there has been little effort to better understand how marine plastic affects different seabird species over time and regionally.
“We actually know very little about the current prevalence of plastic ingestion and nest incorporation for many species, several, like the Long-tailed Duck and Atlantic Puffin, which are globally threatened.
“Only 49 per cent of the 69 species which are commonly found in the region have been investigated for plastic ingestion.
“We believe it’s vital to have a coordinated effort to gain a more comprehensive understanding of this important issue.”