Seabird study shows alarming plastic pollution off Pacific Northwest coast 0
UBC researcher Stephanie Avery-Gomm holds up a Petri dish with stomach contents of a northern fulmar (below) during an interview in Vancouver Wednesday. (CARMINE MARINELLI, 24 HOURS)
Plastic garbage floating off the coast of B.C. has reached "shocking" levels almost equal to those of the notoriously polluted North Sea, according to a new study led by a UBC researcher.
Examining the stomach contents of 67 beached northern fulmars along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon in 2009-2010, the study found 92.5% of the seabirds had ingested on average almost 37 pieces of plastic like twine, Styrofoam and candy wrappers.
In the North Sea between Britain and continental Europe, researchers have found about 95% of birds had ingested plastic.
The new findings, when compared to earlier studies, indicate a steep increase in plastic ingestion over the past four decades, reaching among the highest levels recorded globally.
Often called flying dustbins, northern fulmars - gull-like relatives of albatrosses - forage exclusively at sea and retain ingested plastics a long time, making them ideal indicators for marine littering.
Analysis of beached fulmars has been used to monitor plastic pollution in the North Sea since the 1980s.
"Their stomach content is like a snapshot of how much plastic there is in a pretty large area over the last several weeks or months," said Stephanie Avery-Gomm, the study's lead author and a graduate student in UBC's zoology department. "The findings indicate it's an issue warranting further study."
Avery-Gomm said the plastic in the area she studied was not simply caught in local gyres, like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of concentrated plastic pollution in the middle of the North Pacific.
"The plastic that's being ingested by the birds that I've studied is probably from local waste discharged from ships, or regional waste discharge into rivers, storm drains and sewage systems," she said.
The study was completed before the 2011 Japanese Tsunami, which may have even worsened the problem.
Last month, Vancouver Aquarium president and CEO John Nightingale found significant increases in marine debris - much of it plastic - during a trip to the west coast of the southern island of Haida Gwaii.
In his blog, Nightingale noted that facing the open Pacific, his travel party "observed plainly obvious amounts of floating plastic debris," and "all of the beaches we visited had plainly visible debris items, something not found in previous visits."
According to Nightingale, locals said they've never seen this much debris floating. There was also more foam-based debris, some of which look like partial sheets of foam building insulation. They also found hundreds of beverage bottles, many with Japanese characters on them, which could also have been washed into the ocean from land during the tsunami.