Arctic birds, seals and reindeer killed by marine plastics; pollution expected to rise

Arctic birds, seals and reindeer killed by marine plastics; pollution expected to rise

Arctic birds, seals and reindeer killed by marine plastics; pollution expected to rise

Updated 10 February 2018, 14:20 AEDT

Researchers say the concentration of plastic waste in the European Arctic is now comparable or even higher than in more urban and populated areas.

Think of the Arctic and you are likely to picture a vast white expanse of pristine snow and ice alongside crystal blue seas, with polar bears, seals and other wildlife in prime condition.

But increasingly this remote wilderness is becoming the last stop for vast amounts of plastic junk littering the ocean.

A new report illustrates the scale of contamination in the Norwegian and Barents Seas north of Scandinavia, and shows that no corner of the Earth is immune from the scourge of plastic pollution.

Virtually everywhere researchers look they find plastic, according to the report by the Norwegian Polar Institute.

Even in remote areas with relatively low human impact, it says the concentration of plastic waste in the European Arctic is now comparable or even higher than in more urban and populated areas.

And there are signs the amount of plastic is increasing, with global plastic production reaching 322 million tonnes in 2015 and predicted to grow by around 4 per cent a year.

The report warns ocean debris poses a threat to marine organisms via entanglement, ingestion or as a vector for alien species.

And nowhere is the impact of plastic waste more heart-wrenching than on Arctic wildlife — from fish and small invertebrates, to seabirds, seals and even reindeer.

In Svalbard for example an archipelago halfway between Norway and the North Pole — 87.5 per cent of fulmar birds (ocean birds in the petrel family) were found to have plastic in their stomachs, a quarter of which were at levels of 0.1 grams or more, contrary to the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic, which has set a target of less than 10 per cent of the fulmar population with such an amount.

Fulmars are particularly vulnerable to plastic ingestion because unlike gulls and many other birds they do not regurgitate and retain more plastic in their gastrointestinal tract.

Previous studies have shown surface-feeding birds, including fulmars, ingest far more plastic than pursuit feeders, which dive to obtain food, because these are less likely to ingest floating debris.

Diving birds, however, are more likely to be susceptible to entanglement in abandoned nets and fishing gear or larger marine plastic debris.

The proliferation of discarded fishing gear affects more than just seabirds.

Seals and reindeer have been found strangled or caught in ghost nets and rope, both on land and in the sea.

In one case a reindeer, with its antlers caught in derelict fishing nets, had to be put down.

Geir Wing Gabrielsen, one of the report's authors says abandoned fishing gear from boats and trawlers accounts for the vast majority of marine plastics found in Svalbard, although further south most plastics come from household goods.

Environmentalists are particularly alarmed at the growth of microplastics, which range in size from 5 millimetres down to 1 micrometre, and include both fibres from fishing equipment or textiles, and fragments of larger plastics that have broken down.

Microplastics are now found everywhere in Arctic waters, and of the same order of magnitude as those found in the North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans.

In some places researchers have found concentrations of up to 234 particles of plastic in one litre of melted sea ice, far higher even than in some of the most polluted currents in the open ocean.

The Norwegian Polar Institute estimates microplastics make up about 1 million of the 8-12 million tons of plastic that enter the ocean annually.

Of those, about 1 per cent are floating, 5 per cent are found on beaches, and the remaining 94 per cent sink to the ocean floor.

It says the high levels of micro and small plastics found in sea ice highlight the importance of management action to reduce marine litter globally.

Bo Eide, an environmental consultant at Norway's Tromso Council, spends much of his time working to clean up the country's Arctic fjords.

"Just last year I think we took 30 tonnes [of marine plastic and debris] — household litter, food wrapping, bottles," Mr Eide said.

"But the main part weight-wise is equipment from fisheries. Lots and lots and lots of pieces of rope. Some are cut. Some are obviously torn.

"The international fishing fleet is operating offshore. And we clearly find signs that they contribute to this. But still we find litter from all over Europe, and even some from across the Atlantic.

"I mean you can throw a thing into the ocean in Florida, and think, 'Hey, I've thrown it away'. And then it might end up on our shores. They rather quickly break down into smaller pieces and even tiny little fibres," he told the BBC.

"I think the coastline as a whole, I think you can characterise it as a microplastics factory. It's so obvious that what we're doing here is the tip of the tip of the iceberg. But it is the visible tip really. This is what is readily available."

The report predicts global plastics production will double again within 20 years and quadruple by 2050.

By then it is predicted there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the world's oceans, according to a prediction made in 2016 at the United Nations World Economic Forum.

Asia is the largest producer of plastic, with 45 per cent of total world production, followed by Europe and the US at 40 per cent.

Yet, on average barely 14 per cent of plastics are recycled. Around 40 per cent end up in landfill and 32 per cent in ecosystems such as the world's oceans.

The UN says leakage to the oceans is largest in Asia — at 82 per cent, against just 2 per cent from the US and Europe and 16 per cent from the rest of the world.

Climate change also threatens to increase the contamination of Arctic waters.

The colder waters of the Arctic have traditionally acted as a barrier to alien organisms attached to microplastics washed in on warmer currents.

But that barrier has been weakened as the seas have warmed and sea ice has melted.

The report also warns plastic litter will damage the travel and tourism industries, by diminishing the environmental and wildlife values of the Arctic circle.