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Trending science: 99 % of seabirds could be eating plastic by 2050

A new study predicts that plastics ingestion will increase in seabirds, reaching 99 % of all species by 2050, however effective waste management can reduce this threat.

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. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to this type of pollution and are widely observed to ingest floating plastic. A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), reveals that the threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. The authors, Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille and Britta Denise Hardesty, used a mixture of literature surveys, oceanographic modelling, and ecological models to predict the risk of plastic ingestion to 186 seabird species globally. First, they performed a spatial risk analysis using predicted debris distributions and ranges for these seabird species to model debris exposure, and then adjusted the model using published data on plastic ingestion by seabirds. Based on the literature, the team found that between 1962 and 2012, 80 of 135 (59 %) species had ingested plastic, and, within the studies, on average 29 % of individuals had plastic in their gut. The authors estimate that the ingestion rate would reach a shocking 90 % of birds if these studies were conducted today. Importantly, the risk model was tuned to predict risk across seabird species at the global scale. The study abstract notes, ‘The highest area of expected impact occurs at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which contrasts with previous work identifying this area as having low anthropogenic pressures and concentrations of marine debris.’ Globally, the authors’ prediction for the future is nothing short of grim: ‘We predict that plastics ingestion is increasing in seabirds, that it will reach 99% of all species by 2050.’ There is, however, the possibility for reprieve: effective waste management can reduce this threat. Richard Thompson, a marine biologist at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom, noted to Science magazine that the team’s findings ‘bridge current gaps in data and illustrate geographic hotspots’ where plastics may pose a problem in the future. The research is unique in that it attempts to assess the problem worldwide rather than on a region-by-region and species-by-species basis, he added. According to National Geographic, the study results can serve as a call to action for our plastic-addicted world: ‘Today’s publication by Dr. Wilcox and other members of the NCEAS Working Group clearly highlights just how bad the ocean plastic pollution problem has become. But we must not sit idly by as the world’s seabirds slowly and inexorably become overwhelmed by society’s reliance on plastics. Scientists, the private sector and global citizens must work together to fight the growing onslaught of plastic pollution in the ocean and help ensure a healthy ocean upon which all of us – including the world’s seabirds – depend.’ For further information, please visit:


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