Carl Safina

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

For Seabirds As For The Graduate, One Word: Plastics.

If something can be neither fish nor fowl, for seabirds this is neither feast nor famine: scientists are discovering more species eating more—plastic.

An article in the Ottawa Citizen reports that in the Canadian Arctic, startled scientists “are pulling remarkable amounts of trash from birds in some of the remotest spots on Earth.”

Pacific albatrosses are famous for eating plastic. Now Canadian scientists are finding plastics in sturdy cousins of albatrosses called Fulmars; 85 percent of Canadian Fulmars now have plastic in their bodies. “I find these plastic pieces packed up around the bottom of the stomach and around the sphincter that leads into the intestine,” said Jennifer Provencher, who had been doing dissections. One gull-sized Fulmar, for example, had what looked like a red Coke cap and 20 other plastic pieces in it. Provencher called the amount of plastic she discovered in Arctic Canadian seabirds, “hard to believe.”

But in European waters, it’s worse: Fulmars there are now loaded with an average of 40 pieces of plastic. Virtually all European Fulmars now fly around with plastic in their bodies.

And, it’s increasing. Biologist Stephanie Avery-Gomm, opened stomachs of 36 Fulmars that washed up on Vancouver Island after a storm. One contained several dozen pieces of plastic, including industrial pellets, a chunk of sponge, fishing line and a bristle from a hairbrush. In a study of bird diets done back in the 1970s, Fulmar stomachs had contained no plastic.

“Every time we sample we are surprised by the amount of plastics we find,” said Provencher.

Another surprise: more species now contain plastics, including the normally non-scavening Thick-billed Murre. Fulmars were already known plastic swallowers, but “What was shocking was to open up the murres and find plastics,” Provencher said. Eleven percent of 186 Thick-billed murres examined carried plastics.

The plastics are coming not just from boats. They’re from us all. In North America and Western Europe the average person is now using around 220 pounds of plastic a year. Needless to say, that’s expected to increase. In Asia the average person uses around 80 pounds of plastic per year, and that’s expected to nearly double by 2015.

Read what the United Nations Environment Program’s 2011 Yearbook has to say about plastics in the ocean.

It’s a nightmare.

So my question is: Why do we use an eternal material to package items intended for one-time use? No one expects such items like yogurt and salad to stay in the distribution chain for more than a couple of weeks. Why don’t we package things like perishable food—and everything else not intended to last forever—in plant-based plastic that will break down in a year?

It could easily be done. The materials already exist. For instance:


Carl Safina’s writing explores the scientific, moral, and social dimensions of our relationship with nature.

His writing has been awarded such distinctions as: New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Los Angeles Times “Best Nonfiction,” Library Journal’s “Best Science Book,” Lannan Literary Award, John Burroughs Medal, the National Academies’ “Year’s Best Book for communicating science.”

Safina is a recipient of the Pew Scholar’s Award in Conservation and the Environment, Chicago¹s Brookfield Zoo¹s Rabb Medal, and a MacArthur prize, among many other honors.

He is an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, and founding president of Blue Ocean Institute.

Adrift, Autumnal 2011

About the Editors

Casey R. Skinner grew up along the Kuskokwim River in a rural Athabascan village in Alaska fishing for king salmon and mushing her sled dog team. She now resides on the shores of Resurrection Bay in Seward, Alaska. Casey's a poet, a naturalist, a dog-lover, has two birds, and a stubborn bulldog named Gus.
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