South coast seabirds have stomachs full of plastic

Montague island scenes. Interiors.Photo Nick Moir 13 September 2015Seabirds at Montague Island off Narooma have stomachs full of plastic, one of Australia’s leading wildlife biologists has warned.
Nanjing Night Net

Macquarie University professor of marine ecology Rob Harcourt has worked with the seabirds of Montague Island for many years. He is very familiar with the growing of problem of loose, floating plastic in the world’s oceans and how that pollution is impacting on marine animals.

“There is a large colony of seabirds breeding on Montague Island and plastics look a lot like their food items,” Professor Harcourt said.

“They [the birds] pick up the plastics instead, because they look like fish. They take it back to feed their chicks, and the chicks starve because their stomachs are full of plastic. It’s a serious, serious problem.”

He said it particularly affected the migratory seabirds, such as shearwaters, also called mutton birds, and terns.

The short-tailed shearwater birds migrate 10,000 kilometres from the Bering Sea, between Alaska and Japan, to Australian shores in late September to nest.

They have eaten little on their journey and are exhausted by the flight and so have been known to die in mass numbers.

But the plastic in their stomachs is a ticking timebomb for each bird, building up, eventually taking its toll and killing the bird.

“There is no doubt that trash is a problem, and plastic is a major problem for oceans,” Professor Harcourt said.

Professor Harcourt is expected to release 25-year modelling about the effects of climate change on the strength of the East Australian Current early in 2018. His research shows how that will impact the whole ecosystem.

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