10 May 2019 Story Ecosystems and Biodiversity

Pollution-free stepping stones are vital for bird migrations

Photo by Bob Peyton/USFWS, Flickr

Every year, birds make epic journeys across the world to survive. Over millions of years certain species of birds have become hard-wired to seek food and nesting sites along routes.

Take the red knot, a tiny shorebird that migrates from the tip of South America all the way to the Arctic Circle. They fly for up to 3,200 km without stopping at altitudes of 6,000 metres where the air is incredibly thin. And as they fly north, there are only a handful of specific places where they land.

One of the few stops on that marathon journey is Delaware Bay in the United States, an estuary that offers a banquet for migrating birds. They stop over to get enough food to quickly put on the weight that they need to go to their next stop along their journey.

But in recent years, many of these stepping stones have become polluted, threatening the survival of some species.

Plastic pollution, including from abandoned fishing gear, has increased tenfold since 1980, and 300-400 million tonnes of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other waste from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters. Migrating shore birds like the red knot are suffering, and they’re not the only ones—it’s estimated that around 14 per cent of globally threatened bird species are threatened by pollution.

Red knots at Ponce Inlet, Florida, USA. Photo by Andrea Westmoreland, Flickr

World Migratory Bird Day on 11-12 May, with the theme “Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution!”, puts the spotlight on the impact of plastic pollution on migratory birds and their habitats.

According to the State of the World’s Birds (2018), one in eight bird species (13 per cent of existing species) are threatened with extinction. While plastic pollution is an important threat, migratory birds face a myriad of challenges, with agriculture, logging and invasive species being the most important ones.

The Convention on Migratory Species, the African-Eurasian Waterbird Agreement and Environment for the Americas have joined forces to strengthen global recognition and appreciation of migratory birds, particularly along their routes, or flyways, in the Americas, Africa and Eurasia, and East Asia.

Ringed plovers in the Arctic. Photo by GRID-Arendal

Plastic harms flying birds

With an annual production of more than 300 million tonnes, plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the world. An estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. Once in the water, it often leads to lethal cases of ingestion and entanglement.

Sadly, having wings does not help birds escape from this lethal threat.

Floating on the surface of the water, covered in algae, single-use plastics such as bags, drinking straws and bottles can easily be mistaken by seabirds for food, both by shape and by smell. Unwittingly, birds feed plastic to their chicks that are even more vulnerable.

Layers of plastic covering our oceans and waterways also often result in entanglement and trapping. Abandoned fishing gear, leading to a phenomenon called “ghost fishing”, is one of the most common causes and ultimately leads to the bycatch of many marine species, including seabirds. Caught birds are either injured or end up drowning. Trapped birds are limited in their movements and easily become prey to other animals.

Dead albatross with plastic debris in its stomach found at Midway Atoll Refuge. Photo by Flickr

What can be done to prevent the problem?

The number of seabirds dying from the effects of plastic every year is currently 1 million and growing. Research highlights the urgency of the matter: not only are 90 per cent of seabirds estimated to have plastic in their guts, but at this rate the proportion of seabirds ingesting plastic will reach 99 per cent by 2050.

Studies show that local projects on the management of plastic waste, such as deposit return schemes, produce results in a short period of time, showing how common sense and awareness can help to curb the giant tide of plastic. The Clean Seas website offers solutions and ideas on how we can all make a difference.  

Governments can show leadership by introducing new measures and incentives to reduce the use of single-use plastics, to ensure the responsible disposal of derelict fishing gear and contribute to the transition towards a Circular Economy. The European Commission is working on introducing new measures on single-use plastics as well as derelict fishing gear.

World Migratory Bird Day 2019 is a unique chance to join efforts to address the serious problem of plastic pollution and to highlight its negative effects on migratory birds. Let’s unite our voices to address this rapidly growing environmental concern!

For further information, please contact Kelly Malsch