Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing

Edited by James A. Estes, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA, and approved July 2, 2015 (received for review January 31, 2015)
August 31, 2015
112 (38) 11899-11904
Commentary
Silent spring in the ocean
Boris Worm

Significance

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a rapidly emerging global environmental concern, with high concentrations (up to 580,000 pieces per km2) and a global distribution, driven by exponentially increasing production. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to this type of pollution and are widely observed to ingest floating plastic. We used a mixture of literature surveys, oceanographic modeling, and ecological models to predict the risk of plastic ingestion to 186 seabird species globally. Impacts are greatest at the southern boundary of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans, a region thought to be relatively pristine. Although evidence of population level impacts from plastic pollution is still emerging, our results suggest that this threat is geographically widespread, pervasive, and rapidly increasing.

Abstract

Plastic pollution in the ocean is a global concern; concentrations reach 580,000 pieces per km2 and production is increasing exponentially. Although a large number of empirical studies provide emerging evidence of impacts to wildlife, there has been little systematic assessment of risk. We performed a spatial risk analysis using predicted debris distributions and ranges for 186 seabird species to model debris exposure. We adjusted the model using published data on plastic ingestion by seabirds. Eighty of 135 (59%) species with studies reported in the literature between 1962 and 2012 had ingested plastic, and, within those studies, on average 29% of individuals had plastic in their gut. Standardizing the data for time and species, we estimate the ingestion rate would reach 90% of individuals if these studies were conducted today. Using these results from the literature, we tuned our risk model and were able to capture 71% of the variation in plastic ingestion based on a model including exposure, time, study method, and body size. We used this tuned model to predict risk across seabird species at the global scale. The highest area of expected impact occurs at the Southern Ocean boundary in the Tasman Sea between Australia and New Zealand, which contrasts with previous work identifying this area as having low anthropogenic pressures and concentrations of marine debris. We predict that plastics ingestion is increasing in seabirds, that it will reach 99% of all species by 2050, and that effective waste management can reduce this threat.

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Acknowledgments

We thank T. J. Lawson for assisting with figures, M. Lansdell for helping compile seabird data, and BirdLife International for making seabird distribution information available. Constructive comments from R. Crawford, M. England, J. van Franeker, and Q. Schuyler improved this manuscript. C.W. and B.D.H. acknowledge Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation's Oceans and Atmosphere Business Unit and Shell’s Social Investment Program for support. E.V.S. was supported by Australian Research Council Grant DE130101336. This work was conducted within the Marine Debris Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, with support from the Ocean Conservancy.

Supporting Information

Appendix (PDF)
Supporting Information

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Information & Authors

Information

Published in

Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Go to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Vol. 112 | No. 38
September 22, 2015
PubMed: 26324886

Classifications

Submission history

Published online: August 31, 2015
Published in issue: September 22, 2015

Keywords

  1. extinction
  2. ingestion
  3. marine debris
  4. risk analysis
  5. seabird

Acknowledgments

We thank T. J. Lawson for assisting with figures, M. Lansdell for helping compile seabird data, and BirdLife International for making seabird distribution information available. Constructive comments from R. Crawford, M. England, J. van Franeker, and Q. Schuyler improved this manuscript. C.W. and B.D.H. acknowledge Commonwealth Scientific and Industry Research Organisation's Oceans and Atmosphere Business Unit and Shell’s Social Investment Program for support. E.V.S. was supported by Australian Research Council Grant DE130101336. This work was conducted within the Marine Debris Working Group at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, Santa Barbara, with support from the Ocean Conservancy.

Notes

This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
See Commentary on page 11752.

Authors

Affiliations

Chris Wilcox1 chris.wilcox@csiro
Oceans and Atmosphere Business Unit, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Hobart, TAS 7001, Australia;
Erik Van Sebille
Grantham Institute & Department of Physics, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, United Kingdom;
Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia
Britta Denise Hardesty
Oceans and Atmosphere Business Unit, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Hobart, TAS 7001, Australia;

Notes

1
To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: chris.wilcox@csiro.
Author contributions: C.W. and B.D.H. designed research; C.W., E.V.S., and B.D.H. performed research; C.W. and E.V.S. analyzed data; and C.W., E.V.S., and B.D.H. wrote the paper.

Competing Interests

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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    Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing
    Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
    • Vol. 112
    • No. 38
    • pp. 11739-E5378

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