II Biological Implications of Marine Litter

Deleterious Effects of Litter on Marine Life

Abstract In this review we report new findings concerning interaction between marine debris and wildlife. Deleterious effects and consequences of entanglement, consumption and smothering are highlighted and discussed. The number of species known to have been affected by either entanglement or ingestion of plastic debris has doubled since 1997, from 267 to 557 species among all groups of wildlife. For marine turtles the number of affected species increased from 86 to 100 % (now 7 of 7 species), for marine mammals from 43 to 66 % (now 81 of 123 species) and for seabirds from 44 to 50 % of species (now 203 of 406 species). Strong increases in records were also listed for fish and invertebrates, groups that were previously not considered in detail. In future records of interactions between marine debris and wildlife we recommend to focus on standardized data on frequency of occurrence and quantities of debris ingested. In combination with dedicated impact studies in the wild or experiments, this will allow more detailed assessments of the deleterious effects of marine debris on individuals and populations.

Keywords Marine debris Plastic litter Entanglement Ingestion Harm Review


For several decades, it has been known that anthropogenic debris in the marine environment, in particular plastic, affects marine organisms (Shomura and Yoshida 1985; Laist 1997; Derraik 2002; Katsanevakis 2008). Plastic production grows at 5 % per year (Andrady and Neal 2009). Part of the material ends up as litter in the marine environment, to such an extent that the issue is considered to be of major global concern (UNEP 2011). Awareness has grown that plastics may become less visible but do not really disappear as they become fragmented into small persistent particles ('plastic soup') (Andrady 2015). Plastic fragmentation can be caused by abiotic factors (Andrady 2011) or through animal digestion processes (Van Franeker et al. 2011). The smaller the particle, the higher the availability to animals at the base of the food chain. The potential deleterious effects from ingestion, have heightened the urgency to evaluate the impact of plastics on the whole marine food chain and, ultimately, the consequences for humans as end consumers (Koch and Calafat 2009; UNEP 2011; Galloway 2015).

The most visible effect of plastic pollution on marine organisms concerns wildlife entanglement in marine debris, often in discarded or lost fi gear and ropes (Laist 1997; Baulch and Perry 2014). Entangled biota are hindered in their ability to move, feed and breathe. In addition, many marine organisms mistake litter for food and ingest it (Day et al. 1985; Laist 1997). Indigestible debris such as plastics may accumulate in their stomachs and affect individual fi with consequences for reproduction and survival, even if not causing direct mortality (Van Franeker 1985; Bjorndal et al. 1994; McCauley and Bjorndal 1999). Marine birds, turtles and mammals have received most attention, but the consequences of entanglement and ingestion on other organism groups, e.g. fi and invertebrates, are becoming more evident. In addition to the issues of entanglement and ingestion, synthetic materials represent a long-lived substrate that may present the possibility of transporting hitch-hiking 'alien' species horizontally to ecosystems elsewhere (for more details see Kiessling et al. 2015) or vertically from the sea surface through the water column to the seafl . Plastics may also smother water surfaces and sea bottoms where effects may range from suffocating organisms (e.g. Mordecai et al. 2011; Green et al. 2015) to offering new habitats for species that are otherwise unable to settle (e.g. Chapman and Clynick 2006).

Major reviews of the impacts of litter, in particular plastics, on marine life have been undertaken by Shomura and Yoshida (1985), Laist (1997), Derraik (2002) and Katsanevakis (2008). We used the species list of Laist (1997) as a basis for our work and conducted an extensive literature review to add not only birds and mammals, but also fish and invertebrates. Laist (1997) tabulated data on both entanglement and ingestion but focused discussions on the entanglement aspect. Therefore, we paid more attention to descriptions and discussion of the ingestion issue. This includes occurrence of smaller plastics in smaller organisms, including invertebrates but leaves the real microplastic issues to the dedicated chapter in this book (Lusher 2015). The table with species listings for ingestion and entanglement starts with marine birds and mammals because for these animal groups, literature coverage is far more complete than for lower taxonomic groups, and because this is directly comparable with Laist (1997). Further taxonomic groups are in traditional taxonomic sequence.

Tables 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3 summarise our findings on entanglement and ingestion for groups of species in comparison to the earlier review by Laist (1997). Table 4.4 gives a more specific overview of our findings, but all details for individual species and data sources are provided in our Online Supplement. Data in our tables only relate to observations on wild organisms. This excludes for example fisheries by-catch data for active fishing gear and laboratory experiments. Texts refer to these only where it does not overlap too much with the microplastics chapters in this book and the review by Cole et al. (2011). The main aim of our paper was to compile a factual overview of known records of interference of plastic debris with marine wildlife as a basis for current discussions and future work addressing the scale of impact and policies to be developed.

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