Scientists say eating plastic could be to blame for Lord Howe Island seabird deaths

Scientists studying the impact of plastic debris on a seabird colony that nests on Lord Howe Island say they found an increasing number of dead chicks during the latest fledging season — one with 200 small pieces of plastic in its digestive system.

Warning: This story contains confronting images.

They are studying whether the young flesh-footed shearwaters are failing to make it off the World Heritage-listed island and begin their migration journey due to the vast amounts of plastic they’re consuming.

“The proportion of birds at risk of ingesting plastic from our oceans is increasing,” Jennifer Lavers from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies in Tasmania, said.

Different colored small pieces of plastic placed on a sheet of paper.
A dead shearwater chick on Lord Howe Island had ingested this amount of plastic.(supplied)

Every year Dr Lavers and a team of scientists at Adrift Lab travel to Lord Howe Island to study the impact of marine plastic pollution and the health of the flesh-footed shearwater.

“We’ve been monitoring a couple of Australian shearwater species for the past 15 years or so, in particular the flesh-footed shearwater, which is a fairly large species that breeds primarily on Lord Howe Island,” Dr Lavers said.

While some healthy chicks were tagged and released, the team of scientists dissected the growing number of dead birds found on the island.

More than 200 small pieces of plastic were found inside the digestive system of one chick.

Disected bird has a large amount of plastic inside of it.
Researchers say they are finding large amounts of plastic when they dissect dead shearwaters.(supplied)

Researchers said it pointed towards wider consequences caused by plastic pollution.

“The situation on Lord Howe Island is very serious,” Jack Auty, a lecturer at the University of Tasmania’s School of Medicine and a researcher at Adrift Lab, said.

“These birds go right up to the coast of Japan, so they’re able to be exposed from plastics almost globally,” Dr Auty said.

Dr Auty said even a plastic toy that had not been produced since 1970 was found inside a bird’s stomach last year.

Woman with head torch holds a gray seabird .
Dr Lavers says it is wonderful when her team find a healthy shearwater on Lord Howe Island.(supplied)

“If we are forced to use plastic, we need to make sure we dispose of it in the most responsible way that we can.”

Why do birds eat plastic?

According to Dr Lavers, “plastic is a really good mimic”, often mistaken for food.

Bird wrapped in a towel has tracking device attached to it.
The Adrift Lab is using solar-powered tracking devices attached to juvenile shearwaters as part of its research. (supplied)

She said fragments of plastic that had been floating in the ocean for decades could accumulate a ‘biofilm’, similar to the bottom of a jetty or boat.

“[The pieces of rubbish] probably don’t look or smell like plastic to things like a sea turtle or a seabird. So, they mistakenly consume it,” Dr Lavers said.

This year, the Adrift Lab is using tracking devices attached to juvenile shearwaters to learn if the ingested plastic affects how the species flies, migrates and survives.

Dead birds a ‘sad sight’

Lord Howe Island-based conservation photographer Justin Gilligan followed the group of researchers as they conducted their studies.

“It was quite shocking, actually,” Mr Gilligan said.

“Every morning, we would get up and meet at a couple of the beaches on the island just before sunrise and do a stroll along the beach and collect any dead or dying birds that we found in the intertidal zones,” he said.

Man sits on beach and takes photo of dead seabird as sun sets over the ocean in the background.
Conservation photographer Justin Gilligan photographed a ghost crab eating one of the dead shearwaters on Lord Howe Island(supplied)

Mr Gilligan said he was surprised by the number of young birds they found dead.

“It was a really sad sight.”

Mr Gilligan has been a wildlife photographer for more than 20 years and said he had seen an increase in marine debris.

“It’s just hard to watch that issue get worse and worse,” he said.

“It reinforces how big the issue is.”

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