Mortality Threats to Birds - Marine Trash

Garbage along the shore by the State of Hawaii
Garbage along the shore by the State of Hawaii


Plastic trash in the world's oceans is a mounting concern for seabirds and other marine life. Washed out to sea by storms or thrown overboard by careless seafarers, items such as bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and milk jugs bob on the surface even thousands of miles from human settlements. This flotsam drifts with the currents, sometimes amalgamating to form miniature floating islands before breaking apart to drift to another corner of the globe.


More than just an eyesore, these floating symbols of our disrespect for the environment are a real threat to marine life. Debris, particularly discarded fishing gear, plastic bags, and six-pack rings, can lead to entanglement of marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. Albatrosses are further threatened when they mistake the smaller items for food and ingest them, usually to regurgitate and feed to their young waiting back on the nesting islands. Repeated ingestion of plastics can lead to blockages or ulcerations in the chicks' digestive tracts that may ultimately result in death through starvation or dehydration. Plastic compounds are also toxic and, once ingested, are known to leach chemicals into the bloodstream.

While the exact numbers of chicks lost each year to the ingestion of plastics and other debris is unclear, a 1994 study found that 245 of 251 dead Laysan Albatross chicks contained some ingested plastic items, and that chicks found dead from causes other than injury or lead poisoning had between 18.1 and 23.8 grams of plastic in their guts. Another study of seabirds killed by longline and other fisheries in the North Pacific recorded plastic items in the stomachs of 8 out of 11 species examined. Some of these items may have been in the birds for months or even years.


The Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act (S.362), which was signed into law December 22, 2006, establishes a federal program to address the problem of persistent marine trash. ABC provided the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee testimony in support of the bill and employed its policy staff to advocate for the bill’s passage. Thanks to such efforts and the leadership of Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the Marine Debris Act provides $10 million annually to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and $2 million to the Coast Guard for the next four years.


Accordingly, NOAA has established a Marine Debris Prevention and Removal Program, which in part provides funding opportunities to local groups who manage marine debris. The passage of the Marine Debris Research, Prevention and Reduction Act is a positive step, and American Bird Conservancy continues to advocate focus on abandoned fishing gear and other high-risk types of debris.