Where there are seabirds ingesting

plastics, there are fish and whales, so the project possesses larger implications for health of the Atlantic Ocean’s food web.

Plastic particle found in the Great Shearwater.

Photo by Jason Jaacks

The birds she studies travel from the Gulf of Maine to a remote island between Africa and South America where they breed. Her research led to the Great Shearwater Plastic Project , a multi-agency monitoring initiative to build baseline information about the amount of plastic in the Great Shearwater, an Atlantic native, trans-equatorial seabird seen off the New England coast. The team includes the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Observer Program, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, NC State University, and University of Cape Town Institute of African Ornithology (South Africa). As lead on the project, Robuck autopsies the bycatch birds for stomach samples from collaborators which gives her access to rare samples. She also traveled to South Africa to necropsy birds they had collected for the project. During the last four years, her team has examined 200 birds, collecting and characterizing close to 2,000 pieces of plastic fragment. With another 42 birds in process, they are wrapping up the data and hoping to publish results spring 2021. The project is one of the first global studies, and the first in the Atlantic, to comprehensively measure plastic ingestion by Great Shearwaters and to With an average of 8 to 11 pieces of plastic in a young bird’s stomach, there’s little room left for food.

chemically characterize the type of plastics they eat using Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. And, where there are seabirds ingesting plastics, there are fish and whales, so the project possesses larger implications for health of the Atlantic Ocean’s food web. “The plastic pieces the birds are eating are pretty big,” Robuck explained. “We didn’t find a lot of fibers or pieces below one millimeter. Broken up bottle caps are by far what we find most. We found that young birds eat more plastics than adults, possibly because they are just learning how to hunt. The big picture impact for all birds is the more plastics they have, the less room they have to digest things and eat nutritional food. Latex balloons are the worst – they melt and coat the bird’s stomach, impeding digestion.” She hopes her work will help inform future projects, as well as action through the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Responsible for the federal response to marine debris, this program focuses on removal, prevention, research, regional coordination, and emergency responses. “They are developing an action plan for Gulf of Maine, and I’d really like our data to support future action on plastics pollution in the Gulf and be factored into future efforts to prevent and reduce harm to regional seabirds from plastic ingestion,” Robuck said. “I’d also like to see better solutions for bottle caps, like product redesign, producer responsibility arrangements, waste to value programs specifically incorporating beverage caps, or just a less leaky trash pipeline to keep them out of the oceans.”

URI Initiative Plastics: Land to Sea SPRING | 2021 Page 41

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