Shifting Focus to the North Pacific Ocean

Indications that the North Pacific was a hot spot for plastic litter date back to Kenyon and Kridler's (1969) paper on plastic ingestion by Laysan albatross. Subsequently, Bond (1971) found plastic pellets in all 20 red phalaropes (Phalaropus fulicarius) examined when many individuals of this species came ashore along the coasts of southern California and Mexico in 1969. The birds apparently starved due to a shortage of surface plankton, and some were observed feeding along the strand line where plastic pellets were abundant (Bond 1971). It was unclear whether this had contributed to the high incidence of plastic in these birds, but Connors and Smith (1982) found plastic in six of seven red phalaropes killed by colliding with powerlines on their northward migration in central California. Birds with large volumes of ingested plastic had smaller fat reserves, raising concerns that ingested plastic reduced digestive efficiency or meal size.

Baltz and Morejohn (1976) reported plastic in nine species of seabirds stranded in Monterey Bay, central California, during 1974–1975. All individuals of two species contained plastic: northern fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis) and short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris). Industrial pellets predominated in these birds, but they were also found to contain pieces of food wrap, foamed polystyrene, synthetic sponge and pieces of rigid plastic. Baltz and Morejohn (1976) speculated that having large volumes of plastic in their stomachs could interfere with the birds' digestion, although they considered that toxic chemicals adsorbed to the plastics posed the greatest threat to bird health. Ohlendorf et al. (1978) showed that plastic ingestion also occurred among Alaskan seabirds.

In the same year that Colton et al. (1974) showed the ubiquitous nature of plastic particles floating in the northwest Atlantic, Wong et al. (1974) reported that plastic pellets were widespread in the North Pacific Ocean. Sampling in 1972, they found that pellets occurred at lower densities (average 300 g km−2) than tar balls, but they outnumbered tar balls northeast of Hawaii, with up to 34,000 pellets km−2 (3500 g km−2). Even before this, however, Venrick et al. (1973) had shown that large litter items, at least half of which were made of plastic, were commonly encountered in the North Pacific gyre northeast of Hawaii (roughly 4.2 items km−2) in the area of the now notorious 'North Pacific Garbage Patch'. This is where Moore et al. (2001) recorded densities of more than 300,000 particles km−2 in 1999, and where the weight of the plastic was six times that of the associated zooplankton.

Merrell (1980) conducted one of the fi detailed studies of beach litter. Working on remote Alaskan beaches, he reported how the amount of plastic litter more than doubled in abundance between 1972 and 1974, increasing from an average density of 122 to 345 kg km−1. Most of this litter came from fi operating in the area, but some apparently had drifted more than 1500 km from Asia. At the same time, Jewett (1976) and Feder et al. (1978) found that litter was common on the seabed off Alaska, with plastic items predominating. Merrell (1980) considered that the most obvious impact of beach litter was its aesthetic impact. In terms of biological threats, he speculated that plastic litter might account for the elevated levels of PCBs recorded in rats and intertidal organisms on Amchitka Island, and also suggested that plastics might be a source of phthalates and other toxic compounds into marine systems. Litter also entangled animals, especially seals and seabirds (Merrell 1980), and even terrestrial species were not immune from this problem (Beach et al. 1976).

Merrell (1980) reported the first long-term study of litter accumulation from a 1-km beach on Amchitka Island, Aleutians. He showed that the accumulation rate of litter (average 0.9 kg km−1 d−1) varied considerably between sample periods (0.6–2.3 kg km−1 d−1), and at a fine temporal scale the amount of litter stranded was a function of recent weather conditions. He also estimated the annual turnover rate of plastic items on the beach by marking gillnet floats, the most abundant litter item on the island, in two successive years. During the intervening year, 41 % of marked floats disappeared (25 % at one beach and 70 % at another beach), but this loss was more than compensated for by new arrivals, with a net increase of 130 %. Merrell (1980) discussed the various factors causing the loss of plastic items from beaches (burial, export inland or out to sea, etc.), and noted the bias introduced by selective beachcombing. Even on remote Amchitka Island, the small Atomic Energy Commission workforce removed certain types of fishing floats within a few days of the floats washing ashore.

The large amounts of litter found in Alaska, coupled with ingestion by seabirds (Ohlendorf et al. 1978) and entanglement of seals (Fowler 1985, 1987), stimulated the first post-graduate thesis on the marine litter problem. Bob Day (1980) studied the amounts of plastic ingested by Alaskan seabirds, in the first communitylevel study of plastic ingestion. Of the almost 2000 birds from 37 species collected off Alaska from 1969 to 1977, plastic was found in 40 % of species and 23 % of individuals. His main findings were presented in a review paper at the first marine debris conference in 1984 that summarized what was known about plastic ingestion by birds (Day et al. 1985). By that stage, it was clear that the incidence of plastic ingestion varied greatly among taxa, with high rates typically recorded among petrels and shearwaters (Procellariidae), phalaropes (Phalaropus) and some auks (Alcidae). Unsurprisingly, generalist foragers that fed near the water surface tended to have the highest plastic loads, although some pursuit-diving shearwaters and auks also contained large amounts of plastic. Plastic items were only found in the stomachs of birds; no visible items passed into the intestines. There was some evidence that at least some species retained plastic particles in their stomachs for considerable periods (up to 15 months), where they slowly eroded. Almost all particles floated in seawater, and comparison of the colors of ingested plastics with observations of the colors of litter items at sea demonstrated that all species favoured more conspicuous items, suggesting they were consumed deliberately. Industrial pellets comprised the majority of plastic items in most species sampled, possibly due to their similarity to fish eggs.

Day et al. (1985) also showed that the incidence of plastic ingestion generally increased over the study period, but patterns were affected by seasonal and agerelated differences in plastic loads. Sex had no effect on plastic loads, but immature birds contained more plastic than adults in two of three species where this could be tested. There were also regional differences in plastic loads, with birds from the Aleutian Islands containing more plastic than birds from the Gulf of Alaska, and even lower loads in birds from the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Surveys in the North Atlantic confirmed regional differences in plastic loads in northern fulmars (Bourne 1976; Furness 1985a; van Franeker 1985), paving the way for the use of this species to monitor the abundance and distribution of plastic litter at sea (Ryan et al. 2009; van Franeker et al. 2011; Kühn and van Franeker 2012).

Like Connors and Smith (1982), Day (1980) found weak negative correlations between the amount of ingested plastic and body mass or fat reserves in some species, suggesting a sub-lethal effect on birds. And among parakeet auklets (Cyclorrhynchus psittacula), non-breeding adults contained twice as much plastic as breeding adults. However, Day (1980) was quick to point out that the differences in plastic loads could be a consequence of poor body condition or breeding status rather than vice versa. Harper and Fowler (1987) assumed that the negative correlation between the amount of ingested plastic and body mass of juvenile Salvin's prions (Pachyptila salvini) stranded in New Zealand in 1966 resulted from starving birds resorting to eat inedible objects such as pumice and plastic pellets. Spear et al. (1995) reported that among a large series of birds collected in the tropical Pacific, heavier birds were more likely to contain plastic, and attributed this to the fact that they fed in productive frontal areas where plastic tends to accumulate (cf. Bourne and Clarke 1984). Among birds that contained plastic, there was a negative correlation between the amount of plastic and body weight, which they interpreted as providing the first solid evidence of a negative relationship between plastic ingestion and body condition (Spear et al. 1995). However, caution must be exercised in such comparisons, given the effects of age and breeding status on the amounts of plastic in seabirds such as petrels that regurgitate accumulated plastic to their chicks (Ryan 1988a).

 
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