We’ve heard it before: stories of shearwaters with toothbrushes in their bellies; petrels with synthetic pellets in their guts. Thanks to photographer Chris Jordan, we’ve seen it before, too. His images from Midway Atoll show bottle caps, children’s toys, and shards of plastic spilling out of dead baby albatrosses (birds mistake the trinkets for food). Then they die of starvation—if they don’t succumb to the substance’s toxicity first.
Now a new study published in PNAS says that seabirds all over the globe are encountering the same problem: Out of 186 species, 59 percent were found with plastic debris in their organs. Furthermore, the researchers revealed that this trend might increase; their model showed that by 2050, 99 percent of seabird species will be swallowing plastic. One of the biggest areas of concern is the boundary of the Southern Ocean, where there are high concentrations of plastic and loads of seabird diversity.
Already, this type of pollution affects species on coastlines, as well as remote places like the Aleutian Islands, where millions of auklets breed every year, says Audubon's Pacific Flyway Director Stan Senner, who helped research the seabirds-and-plastic problem when he worked with the Ocean Conservancy. But one thing scientists still don't know is how this problem is disturbing population numbers. "Just because we know plastic is affecting birds everywhere, don't mean we know everything about its impact," Senner says.
The PNAS paper also points out that countries can control their waste and help reign in these numbers. Back in February, a study in Science listed the 20 most ocean-polluting nations in the world (the United States was ranked 20th—China was first). The authors of that paper said that managing landfills, reducing packaging, and of course, recycling, could lessen the amount of plastic lost at sea.
But these countries need to act soon, as plastic is already laying waste to the marine foodchain. Fish, for example, are constantly feeding on trash, along with the chemicals found on it. That means that any pescetarian (including humans) is in danger of consuming plastic. Lucky for us, we don't choke and die on it.