Plastic problem: Junk flows into food chain

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SEATTLE – Something red caught Ellen Anderson’s eye. Something sharp and bright, out of place amidst the muted colors and gentle rhythms of the dunes.

Anderson stepped off the little path that wound from her Ocean Park weekend house to a sandy stretch along the Washington coast. She parted the long beach grasses. She stared, shocked: a dead bird, its exposed belly filled with shiny bits of plastic. Chunks yellowed like old teeth, a perforated pink rectangle, hairy tan slivers. A red shard had first captured her attention.

“My gut hurt. It was a glorious day, sunny, a treasure in May. Everything was great. And then I saw that bird and I was sick to my stomach,” Anderson recently recalled. “You jump to conclusions. Like, did the bird eat all that plastic? I was hoping it hadn’t been consumed by the bird, that somebody planted it there as a joke or something.”

But it was no joke. Back in Seattle, where she’s a computer analyst for Group Health, Anderson e-mailed photographs of the bird’s carcass to experts at the University of Washington, Department of Fish and Wildlife, State Parks, Ocean Conservancy and Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

“Yes – Ellen – it is just as you suspected,” wrote the Conservancy’s Charles Barr, in a reply echoed by the others. “Seabirds are eating plastics that become lodged in their stomachs, causing death. I have seen dozens of photos such as this one – most of … dead albatross on the Pacific Islands of Midway and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. … Many of the albatross will even return to their nests to feed, by regurgitation, plastics to their chicks.”

To fully understand the big deal over Anderson’s dead bird, you need to know it was not a seagull. It was a Northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis), identified by a tube atop its beak that spurts out excess salt.

Like albatross and other pelagic seabirds, fulmars spend their whole lives way, way out in the ocean, coming to shore only during summer breeding, when females lay a single white egg on cliffs.

The rest of the time, the fulmars skim the waves, flying thousands of miles a year, feeding on small fish and jellyfish, crustaceans and larvae. “They’re out on the open ocean where there’s tremendous competition for scarce food, so they don’t stop to look before grabbing whatever it is on the surface,” says Alan Rammer, marine-education specialist with Fish and Wildlife. “Down the craw! Eat and go. As much and as fast as they can. Gorge and get back to the nest to feed the babies.”

Fulmars have been around for millennia, and live as long as 40 years. Yet in the span of a generation, their diet has drastically changed. Now they feast on plastic.

Their taste for plastic makes them like canaries in a coal mine, or rather, fulmars floating in flotsam. The dead seabirds tell us about the ocean’s health.

Dutch researchers have used the fulmars to monitor litter in the North Sea, analyzing the stomach contents of hundreds of birds over two decades. In the early 1980s, 92 percent of the fulmars had ingested plastic; on average, 12 pieces. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of bird stomachs contained plastic, an average 31 pieces.

The fulmar Anderson found along the path at Ocean Park held 59 plastic bits. This spring, Rammer displayed them in a glass bottle at the annual Beachcombers Fun Fair in Ocean Shores, along with a picture of the dead bird. He hypothesized that the fulmar, while foraging at sea, got blown in with a storm and collapsed in the tall grass, starved and weak because it didn’t have enough real nutrients in its belly.

“You look at the jagged edges of those pieces,” Rammer says. They got stuck. “It couldn’t process and assimilate food in its digestive tract. Nothing goes in, nothing comes out. I don’t have any doubt in my mind. It died as a result of plastic poisoning. And I have no doubt there are millions of others like it.”

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