Many of you would have seen the iconic image by Chris Jordan, of the Laysan Albatross chick, decaying full of plastic bottle caps and lighters. Indeed this may have been this image that changed your perception of plastic forever!
But that’s on an Island far far away, right? This couldn’t possibly be happening here in Australia? … well, you might be shocked to hear that Australia’s very own Flesh-footed Shearwater, or Mutton-bird, may be the seabird most impacted by plastic on this planet.. One fledgling was found with over 275 pieces of plastic inside its body! That’s the equivalent to about 10kg in your belly! These gorgeous birds are under pressure from the impacts of humans, and have declined significantly in the last few decades.
this bird contained less than half as much plastic as the record holder.
As part of our ‘Save our Seabirds Project’ our latest expedition was to the World Heritage listed Lord Howe Island, a volcanic paradise 600km east of mainland Australia. This is the only island on the east coast of Australia where the Flesh-footed Shearwaters (Fleshies) breed, here we have joined renowned naturalist Ian Hutton and Dr Jennifer Lavers, founder of Save Our Shearwaters.
Ian is a wealth of knowledge on the wildlife of the island, curator of the local Lord Howe Island museum, conservationist, and award winning tour guide. Jenn is a powerhouse researcher, passionate about ‘her’ seabirds and marine plastic pollution, and the driving force behind the Two Hands Save Our Seabirds Project.
Lord Howe is truly one of the most beautiful islands in the world, a step back to a slower time, as the residents voted to keep their community free of mobile phones and there isn’t even phones or WIFI in the hotel rooms! Back to good old pushbikes and leaving sticky-notes at various places! (Too many hills for the trusty old walkie talkies).
But no moving slow for us, it’s a busy ten days working as Jenn’s field assistants (or ‘her slaves’ as she lovingly calls us…) Yes, it’s a very busy time, here on the island the Fleshies and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters are fledging, leaving their burrows and stretching their wings and flight muscles for the first time in the evenings. But we are here for the birds, and would rest no more without Jenn’s whip cracking.
So for us night-time is spent in the nesting colonies, catching fledglings to assess the effects of plastic ingestion. Some are still very skinny fluff balls, with too much down too survive the ocean, others are quite heavy birds with well-developed feathers. Size and weight are critical to help these fledglings survive their first migration and they all should be ready to go by now!
Early mornings we’re off to comb the beaches for half drowned, shivering birds that didn’t quite get away (we take them into care and feed them fish smoothies until we can release them for a second chance). Mortalities are high, and these are taken to the lab.
Day time is spent processing samples from the night before and necropsying dead birds. Despite the birds ejecting their “bolus” (a mass of indigestible items that are in the chick’s stomach until they fledge) before leaving the colony, we still find plastic inside the dead birds. Even a balloon.
What really threw us, was the sheer amount of plastic bits in the colonies, plastic that could ONLY have been brought here by the shearwaters. Some are simply fragments, others are recognizable items from our everyday lives, even recognizable brands are found! This plastic has been in the ocean, and in many cases has come from our major cities in Australia. Sadly, despite Lord Howe Island being a protected area, marine plastic pollution doesn’t play by the rules. It crosses borders, invades marine parks and is a threat to wildlife everywhere.
Plastic pollution has many sources and forms, from micro-beads in cosmetics, microfibres released from synthetic clothes each time you do the laundry, to consumer packaging including beverage bottles and caps.
Even industrial plastic pollution is common, nurdles (plastic pellets used in plastic production) building site waste, and discarded fishing gear all pollutes our oceans. And the birds.
The true solutions lie in designs that prevent plastic pollution from entering the oceans in the first place. Some objects are simply stupid, and should not exist. Plastic balloon ties for example or those sill red-nosed soy-fish from the sushi shop. Others could be effectively reclaimed with a basic refund system initiative.
As a consumer your first step can be to avoid single use plastic packaging. Start with getting yourself one of our Save Our Seabirds Cheeki water bottle.
And our friends from Plastic Free July make it easy for you and it is a great way to get started, with a whole community to support you and share ideas on avoiding contributing to the plastic pollution problem.
Give it a go.. as we say around here: No Excuse For Single Use!
About: Two Hands Project often partners with community and scientists across Australia and the globe, studying the extent and impacts of plastic pollution on our marine environments. And now has a High School program cleverly weaved into the National Geography and Science curriculum.