Percentage of Seabird Species Ingesting Plastic Expected to Reach 99 Percent by 2050

By Laura Vander Meiden, SRC Intern

A recent study has found that if current rates of plastic introduction into the ocean continue, by 2050 approximately 99 percent of all seabird species will have ingested plastic. The study, published in September of 2015, uses a computer model based upon an analysis of data provided by past plastic-ingestion studies to come to these conclusions.

Unaltered remains of an albatross chick at Midway Atoll. Photo by Chris Jordan of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unaltered remains of an albatross chick at Midway Atoll. Photo by Chris Jordan of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Plastic debris harms seabirds and other marine organisms through both entanglement and consumption. Entangled birds can lose motor abilities reducing their ability to feed and fly. Consumption of plastic can lead to pieces accumulating in the digestive system, taking up gut space typically available for food. This negatively impacts an individual’s body condition and severely reduces its ability to care for itself. In some cases, the plastic completely blocks the digestive system, leading to death. Additionally, plastics in the ocean absorb harmful chemicals that can leach out and cause damage to a seabird’s internal organs. Since approximately half of all sea bird species are in decline, these deleterious effects of plastic debris on seabirds are very concerning.

An analysis of data published in studies from 1962 to 2012 shows that 59 percent of the seabird species studied had been found to ingest plastic. Likewise, researchers found that 29 percent of the individual birds sampled in each study contained plastic in their digestive systems. Trends in this data show an average increase of 1.7 percent a year in the proportion of individuals studied that had ingested plastic. To put this in perspective, if that trend continued and those studies were to be redone today, plastic would be found in over 90% of the individual birds sampled.

Using this data, researchers created a computer model to determine areas of risk for seabird species worldwide. The model included 186 species of sea birds. Surprisingly the location of highest estimated impact was not in the Pacific Ocean, home of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but at the boundary of the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Australia. Though concentrations of plastic debris here are lower than other sites, this area is home to a large number of seabird species that are prone to plastic ingestion. This increases the area’s risk above those of locations with higher plastic concentrations.

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It is important to remember that seabirds are not the only marine organisms affected by plastic debris. An assessment conducted by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity found that in 2012, 663 species were affected by marine waste, with 80 percent of the impact coming from plastic marine waste. This is up 40 percent from a previous assessment completed in 1997. Half of all marine mammal species, every species of sea turtle, and one fifth of seabird species were reported to be affected. Fifteen percent of these species are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, meaning they are at risk of extinction. Species of highest concern include the Hawaiian monk seal, loggerhead sea turtle, and white-chinned petrel.

The seabird study states that ingestion rates rise with increased exposure to plastic. Therefore, if the introduction of plastic into the marine ecosystem was reduced, the study’s projection that by 2050, 99 percent of seabird species will be ingesting plastic could possibly be avoided. Unfortunately, the problem will only continue to get worse unless waste management practices improve and plastic production is reduced. Commercial plastic production first began in the 1950s, over 60 years ago. If current rates of production continue, during the next 11 years we will produce the same amount of plastic as has been created since plastic production first started. Because plastic doesn’t easily biodegrade, this will effectively double the amount of plastic found on Earth.

The United Nations proposed several actions to begin to alleviate this problem. The proposed actions include reduction in the use of plastic as a packaging material, increased producer responsibility, and improved consumer awareness. These solutions are in contrast to past proposals that have only focused on waste management. However in order for a serious impact to occur, change will likely have to take place at international, national and local levels.

Works Cited

Wilcox, C., Van Sebille, E., & Hardesty, B. D. (2015). Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(38), 11899-11904.

Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel—GEF (2012). Impacts of Marine Debris on Biodiversity: Current Status and Potential Solutions, Montreal, Technical Series No. 67.

Marine Pollution: A Look into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By Hannah Armstrong, RJD Intern

Plastics, among other pollutants, are one of the most commonly found in oceans and on beaches globally.  This is mainly for two reasons: first, plastic is very durable and often low in cost, so it is universally used for consumer and industrial products, and second, plastics do not biodegrade completely, remaining in the world’s oceans and on beaches for extended periods if not cleaned up.  All of this accumulating debris can be detrimental for marine life.  Seals, turtles and seabirds often get entangled and drown in abandoned fishing nets and other miscellaneous debris, and toxins both from the breakdown of plastics and those that the plastics themselves absorb, can collect in marine organisms and be damaging to their health and to the aquatic food web as a whole.

In the North Pacific Ocean, there is a gyre that has caused such a drastic collection of debris that it has earned the name The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  A gyre, as defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is a major spiral of ocean-circling currents; global winds result in ocean currents circling clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counter-clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere, with an area of high pressure in the center.  In the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, these ocean circulation patterns are what caused, and is still causing, the substantial amount of debris accumulation, ultimately forming the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is comprised of the Eastern Garbage Patch, which is located near Japan, and the Western Garbage Patch, which is located in the waters between California and Hawaii.

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A representation of the ocean currents and zones in the North Pacific Region. The two green shaded circles depict the Western and Eastern Garbage Patches, where a substantial amount of marine debris has accumulated (Howell et al. 2012).

Charles Moore, the oceanographer who was among the first to draw media attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, noted that in the last two decades alone, the deposition rate of plastic accelerated past the rate of production.  Moreover, his research on plastics in the ocean showed that between 1960 and 2000, the world production of plastic resins increased 25-fold, while recovery of the material remained below 5%; and between 1970 and 2003, plastics became the fastest growing segment of the US municipal waste stream, increasing nine-fold.  According to Moore, marine litter is now 60–80% plastic, reaching 90–95% in some areas (Moore 2008).  This build-up is already beginning to render its consequences on the marine environment and its inhabitants.

The most obvious concern with a debris build-up caused by the previously described convergence zones is the negative effects it poses on the marine life.  Specifically, this pollution affects at least 267 species worldwide, including sea turtles (86%), seabirds (44%), and marine mammal species (43%) (Laist 1997).  In 2009, Young et. al directed their attention toward an area southeast of the Kroshio Extension near Japan.  They observed a population of Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), taking note that the foraging area of adult albatross originating from Kure Atoll overlapped with the range of the Western Garbage Patch.  This, they realized, is what lead to the transfer of marine plastics from adult albatross to their young.  In fact, the albatross chicks from Kure Atoll, in comparison to the Oahu albatross sample used, were fed nearly ten times the amount of plastic despite having a relatively similar amount of available natural food.  While Young et al. were unable to determine the level of mortality as a result of this plastic ingestion, they did observe mechanical blockage of the digestive tract, reduced food consumption, satiation of hunger, and potential exposure to toxic compounds (Young et al. 2008).

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A photograph of a dead Laysan albatross chick with a diversity of plastics in its stomach. Ingestion of marine debris is a detrimental issue or marine organisms and seabirds (Young et al. 2008).

In addition to threats of ingesting pollutants, marine species face threats of entanglement and a phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.” This occurs when fishing gear is lost or abandoned, but continues to fish and wipeout resources (Moore 2008).  As a means of remediating entanglement, often a result of nets and six-pack soda rings among other pollutants, some manufacturers aim to chemically alter the plastic in the event that it ends up in the ocean.  Chemical changes can allow the polymer to absorb UV-B radiation from sunlight, breaking it down into a smaller, less-harmful product.  The resulting polymer, however, is hardly more biodegradable (Moore 2008).

With the ever-increasing abundance of plastics in the marine environment, concerns too, are growing.  With other environmental problems, most notably climate change, it will be critical to begin (and continue) to study and understand how rising atmospheric and sea temperatures will affect ocean circulation, wind and debris movement patterns.  If drastic changes occur within the North Pacific region, and specifically the area encompassed by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, then the resulting marine pollution accumulation and retention and could be drastic as well.



Derraik, Jose G.B. The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review.  Marine Pollution Bulletin 44 [842-852].  2002.

Howell, Evan A et al. On North Pacific circulation and associated marine debris concentration.  Marine Pollution Bulletin 65-1 [16-22].  2012.

Moore, Charles James.  Synthetic polymers in the marine environment: A rapidly increasing, long-term threat.  Environmental Research 108-2 [131-139].  2008.

Young, Lindsay C et al. Bring Home the Trash: Do Colony-Based Differences in Foraging Distribution lead to Increased Plastic Ingestion in Laysan Albatrosses?  Plos One. 2009.