The threat drifting plastic debris poses to marine wildlife is "global, pervasive and increasing," a study by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has found.
CSIRO, which is based in Australia's capital, Canberra, published its study on marine plastic pollution Tuesday in the scientific journal PNAS.
According to Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebilleb, and Britta Denise Hardesty — the three CSIRO researchers who penned the study — seagulls, albatrosses and other seabirds face a grim future on the world's oceans.
The scientists claim that as many as nine out of ten seabirds have ingested plastic, and predictions for the future are bleak to say the least. At the current pace, the researchers estimate that 99 percent of all seabirds will have plastic debris in their gut by 2050 — compared to 5 percent in 1960.
Plastic can cause a variety of problems for seabirds. Some plastics concentrate chemicals and other pollutants, which are then released into the birds body when ingested. But one of the biggest problems is simply the trouble birds have passing the plastics through their bodies. The plastics accumulate in the stomach, and take up space that would otherwise be used for real food, making it difficult for the bird to eat enough to stay healthy.
While the issue is worse in some areas of high debris concentration, plastic pollution is a global issue that requires urgent attention.
CSIRO's forecast is based on an analysis of seabird exposure to plastic debris. To assess the level of exposure, the researchers reviewed all studies on plastic ingestion by seabirds published since 1950, and compiled the findings. They then merged the data with the trajectories of drifting plastic debris in the world's oceans.
The scientists were able to determine that in some areas of the ocean, there are up to 580,000 pieces of floating plastic per square kilometer.
"I have seen everything from cigarette lighters, to model cars, to bottle caps," Hardesty told the Associated Press.
A number of research centers around the world are studying the impact of plastic debris on the planet's oceans and marine ecosystems. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has observed that debris-carrying surface currents converge in areas like the Pacific to form vast spirals of ocean-circling currents known as "gyres." The gyres concentrate marine debris just under the surface of the water, forming large nebula-like masses of plastic trash.
In the late 80s, researchers coined the term "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" to refer to the accumulation of plastic litter in the North Pacific ocean.
According to CSIRO, the largest concentrations of plastic debris are located in the Tasman sea, between Australia and New Zealand, and in the southwestern margin of the Indian Ocean.
In March 2015, environmental foundation Race For Water sent its MOD70 trimaran on a 300-day scientific voyage to analyze the world's five trash vortexes.
"The boat just left the Palau Islands and is now north of Indonesia," Race for Water spokeswoman Lucie Gerber told VICE News on Tuesday. The vessel is now heading to the Indian Ocean, for the next part of its mission.
The crew — which includes Race for Water chairman and Swiss entrepreneur Marco Simeoni — has already made 11 stops since the start of the expedition.
"We decided to focus on islands that are near the gyres, because they serve as natural dams and retain the debris that the currents carry," said Gerber.
Locating and mapping gyres is extremely difficult, and the team is relying on drones and specimen collection to analyze the floating currents of debris.
"Under the effect of salt and exposure to UV radiation, the debris breaks down into tiny pieces that can end up being no bigger than sequins," said Gerber, who compared gyres to a "plastic soup that floats around at the whim of currents."
For CSIRO's scientists, the key to less plastic debris in the ocean could be better management of trash on land. Despite a worrying short-term prognosis, the researchers noted a significant decrease in the ingestion of plastic in northern European seabirds — a trend they said could be explained by the EU's new environmental objectives and better industry standards.
The Race for Water expedition is scheduled to end in December, when the preliminary findings will be sent to several European universities for analysis.
Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c
Image of a red-footed booby on Christmas Island, in the Indian Ocean via Britta Denise Hardesty/CSIRO
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