Seabirds bring nutrients from the ocean to the land. Now they’re bringing plastic, too.

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Dan Burgin was holding the flesh-footed shearwater chick when it vomited a hard white square of plastic—and stinky stomach oil—over Simon Lamb. The two ecologists, from the consultancy Wildlife Management International, were on predator-free Ohinau Island, off the eastern side of the Coromandel Peninsula, collecting data on the shearwater breeding season.

They couldn’t help noticing the plastic scattered around the seabird colonies, especially near the shearwaters’ burrows. The rubbish wasn’t jettisoned by humans—Ohinau Island requires a permit to visit—but by the birds themselves. Seabirds perform a vital ecosystem role of bringing nutrients from the ocean to the land. Now, they’re transporting plastic, too. They’re even feeding it to their young.

Burgin and Lamb autopsied 11 flesh-footed shearwater chicks they found dead in their burrows or on the ground, and found that they all had plastic in their stomachs. In one decomposing chick, they discovered 114 miscellaneous particles weighing 35 grams: five per cent of the body weight of a chick roughly the size of seagull, or the equivalent of a human swallowing three kilograms of the stuff.

“To see plastics having such a tangible impact on this species was very hard-hitting,” says Burgin. “I had a very heavy heart coming off that trip.”

Because of the complexity of ocean currents, the plastic could be coming from both local and international sources, he says. “The problem is probably more acute than we’re aware of.”

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