Plastic not fantastic for seabirds

Seabirds on one of Australia’s remotest islands have plastic in their stomachs.

Plastic not fantastic for seabirds
A flesh-footed shearwater surveys the contents of its stomach Credit: Ian Hutton

A recent survey found more than 95 per cent of the migratory flesh-footed shearwaters nesting on Lord Howe Island, between Australia and the northern tip of New Zealand, had swallowed plastic garbage.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, plastic has been shown to bind poisonous pollutants. As a result, some shearwaters were found with concentrations of mercury more than 7,000 times the level considered toxic.

Only six of more than 200 nests visited contained chicks. The overall population is plummeting.

That’s why Dr Jennifer Lavers, a research fellow of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania, is investigating ways of removing the plastic from the stomachs of the shearwaters, and trying to determine whether this would help stop the decline of the seabirds, which she has been surveying on Lord Howe since 2007.

The oceans of the world are fed by more than 3.2 million plastic items a day, she says. What’s more, that figure is increasing. Wind and wave patterns lead to the development of ocean-sized whirlpools or gyres which redistribute the plastic all over the globe, so one country’s rubbish washes up in another’s backyard—including our own.

“When I and local naturalist Ian Hutton examined the stomachs of the shearwaters on their arrival in Lord Howe in September, they were clean—not a single piece of plastic,” Jennifer says. “A few months later, after foraging in the Tasman Sea, we are finding them full of plastic.”

Photo: A flesh-footed shearwater surveys the contents of its stomach.
Credit: Ian Hutton

Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Jennifer Lavers, Tel: +61 3 6211 4172,,