Urgent action is needed to stop the “horrendous and detrimental effect” of plastics on marine creatures, the chief executive of a Catholic animal welfare charity has said.
The call comes following a study that found small pieces of plastic ingested by seabirds could release toxic chemicals in their stomachs and pose a threat to their long-term health.
The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science, are based on an analysis of stomach oil of northern fulmars, a common seabird found around the coasts of the UK.
Plastic pollution is seen as a growing threat to wildlife as birds, such as fulmars, can mistake it for food.
Ingesting plastic has been known to cause blockages in the digestive system but scientists have wondered whether these human-made substances could also release harmful chemicals as well.
Catholic Concern for Animals (CCA) reacted with great sadness but little surprise at the recent findings, with Chris Fegan, chief executive, describing the need to move away from plastic as “one of the biggest challenges facing us today”.
“The polluting effects on the oceans, seas and great waterways of the world by human activity has been well known for centuries and it is only in recent times that the great rivers of the world such as the Thames have recovered from historical abuse by being used as human dumping grounds especially during the Industrial Revolution period in the UK and elsewhere. I remember distinctly from my youth that the river Irwell in Manchester changed colour on a daily basis from the pollutants that were dumped into it upstream,” he told The Catholic Universe.
Mr Fegan has spoken on the issue in conferences around the world, including at a major International event co-hosted by the Vatican and the UN to celebrate the 4th Anniversary of the publication of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, which was held in Kenya last year.
“The modern pollutant is plastic and this is causing unbelievable havoc to the world’s seas and this directly and of course negatively affects the world’s fish and marine wildlife populations,” he said.
“We have all seen images of plastic debris built up on beaches but also less known perhaps but more horrendous are the images of plastics in the bodies of marine creatures which of course in many cases such as fish now finds its way into the human food chain for those people who still eat seafood.
“The need to stop producing, using and then dumping plastic into the environment is one of the biggest challenges facing us today and urgent action is needed-this has been known for quite some time but as with many other crucial issues nothing seems to be done and the damage caused by plastic is likely to be much more damaging and long lasting even that the horrendous mess left by the Industrial Revolution of the earlier period,” Mr Fegan added.
He revealed that CCA has been working hard on the issue of fish and marine animal welfare for some time now and the charity is in the middle of a big project on the subject and will be holding a major Fish and Marine Welfare Conference at the University of Roehampton on 18th January 2021.
“We will be discussing the appalling issue of plastic pollution in the oceans and other waterways during our event,” said Mr Fegan.
Susanne Kuhn, lead author of the fulmars study and a student at the Wageningen Marine Research in the Netherlands, said: “I’ve been working on northern fulmars for almost 10 years.
“As these seabirds ingest plastics regularly, and 93 per cent of the fulmars from the North Sea have some plastic in their stomachs, it is important to understand the potential harm this could cause.”
Ms Kuhn, along with a team of researchers, replicated the conditions of the fulmar stomach in the laboratory.
The researchers exposed stomach oil, a nutrient-rich liquid found in the fulmar stomach, to small pieces of plastic typically found in the beach which seabirds would be likely to ingest.
The plastic samples were incubated in stomach oil for 90 days and chemical analysis was performed at different time points to see whether the pieces of plastic leached over time to release chemicals.
The researchers found evidence of 15 chemicals, added by plastic manufacturers during the production process, in the stomach oil.
These included plasticisers, antioxidants, UV stabilisers, flame retardants and preservatives.
Some of these substances are known for endocrine disruptive, carcinogenic, and other negative effects on organisms, the researchers said.
They also found that some stomach oil samples from fulmar chicks already had some of the plastic-derived chemicals in it before the experiments began – possibly due to the young being fed plastic by parents.
While the long-term health implications for the birds remain unclear, the researchers say previous studies show leached chemicals from plastic can disrupt hormone release and reproduction.
Ms Kuhn said: “You may be familiar with distressing images of birds caught in plastic packaging or fishing line, but this study reveals that discarded plastic could also have long-term toxic effects on seabirds.
“I hope that these results will increase awareness of the various negative effects of plastic debris in the oceans.
“We urgently need to reduce the amount of plastic in the marine environment.”
Picture: Undated handout photo issued by Frontiers of a fulmar in flight. Small pieces of plastic ingested by seabirds could release toxic chemicals in the stomach and pose a threat to their health in the long run, scientists have said. (J.A. van Franeker/Wageningen Marine Research/PA).