Plastic and Birds

Vigo, Spain

Plastic and Birds
Plastic pollution is a known threat to seabirds. However, there is not a great deal of studies about this problem. Few studies have quantified the impact of this garbage in seabirds, although the enormous risks to these animals in contaminated areas are well known. As anybody can see at the exhibition “Out to Sea? The Plastic Garbage Project”, many seabirds inadvertently feed on plastics, mistaking it for food, and many times this ingestion leads to death. But this is just one of the ways in which plastic waste threaten the lives of these creatures.
Some bird species that feed on the seabed are entangled in nets and other discarded fishing gear. This causes a slow and painful death from starvation. The most threatened species by this litter off the coast of Galicia are guillemots and auks, birds known as the "Northern Hemisphere Penguins". And we must remember that guillemot's population in Galicia suffered a serious decline after the Prestige shipwreck in November 2003. Since then, guillemots virtually disappeared as a breeding species and the number of wintering birds dramatically decreased.
But perhaps the biggest concern, with regard to the species around Galician coasts, must be the Balearic shearwater. This species is listed as "critically endangered" and there are only about 3,000 breeding pairs in the world. It breeds exclusively in the Balearic Islands, but a large contingent of birds reaches our coast to spend the winter here.
Alberto Velando, ornithologist at the University of Vigo's Department of Ecology and Animal Biology, explains that shearwaters feed on plastics, taking them for cephalopods, and great numbers dead by suffocation or by ulcers and infections caused by the chemicals in plastic. We do not know how big of an impact plastic garbage has on the Balearic shearwater's population, so it should be a priority to study it, to know whether it involves a new risk for this endangered species.
In 2014, one of the few studies on this topic revealed that, on Catalan coasts, 70% of the Balearic shearwaters had consumed at least one piece of plastic. According to Greenpeace, one third of seabirds accidentally feed on plastic. And the United States National Academy of Sciences estimates that globally, plastic kills a million birds each year, plus another 100,000 individuals of other species in the oceans, as whales, dolphins, turtles and fish.