Alarming amount of seabirds are eating plastic

A red-footed booby seabird on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean stands among washed-up plastic garbage. Photo: Denise Hardesty/CSIRO

A red-footed booby seabird on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean stands among washed-up plastic garbage. Photo: Denise Hardesty/CSIRO

An estimated 90 percent of all seabirds alive today have eaten some kind of plastic, and scientists believe that plastic ingestion will affect 99 percent of the world's seabirds by the year 2050 if current trends continue without effective waste management, according to a study published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"For the first time, we have a global prediction of how wide-reaching plastic impacts may be on marine species — and the results are striking," said Dr. Wilcox, a senior research scientist at Australia's science agency CSIRO. "We predict, using historical observations, that 90 percent of individual seabirds have eaten plastic. This is a huge amount and really points to the ubiquity of plastic pollution."

In the fieldwork that was conducted, co-author Denise Hardesty of CSIRO said she has found nearly 200 pieces of plastic in a single sea bird.

Plastic found in a dissected flesh-footed shearwater seabird included a doll arm, ballon ties, beverage lids and a variety of other fragments. Photo: Denise Hardesty/CSIRO

Plastic found in a dissected flesh-footed shearwater seabird included a doll arm, ballon ties, beverage lids and a variety of other fragments. Photo: Denise Hardesty/CSIRO

"It's pretty astronomical," Hardesty told the Associated Press about the extent of plastic worldwide. "In the next 11 years we will make as much plastic as has been made since industrial plastic production began in the 1950s."

Unfortunately, discarded plastic finds its way into the waterways and into the oceans where seabirds mistake the brightly colored items for food and swallow them by accident. The plastic often blocks their guts, preventing proper digestion and causing weight loss or death.

RELATED: Ending an endless layer of plastics in the Pacific

The number of seabirds found to have plastic in their stomachs went from 5 percent in 1960 to 80 percent in 2010 to the current estimate of 90 percent, researchers from CSIRO and Imperial College London revealed.

The previous estimate was about 29 percent, based on older studies.

The greatest impact by plastic on seabirds is being seen in the Southern Ocean, in a band around the southern edges of Australia, South Africa and South America.

An estimated 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten some kind of plastic. Photo:  De vlieger/Flickr

An estimated 90 percent of all seabirds have eaten some kind of plastic. Photo: De vlieger/Flickr

"We are most concerned about species such as petrels, shearwaters and giant albatrosses, which live in areas near the mainland shore, islands or the Southern Ocean, where they are part of a large complex ecosystem of animals feeding on each other,” Dr. Erik van Sebille of Imperial College London said. "While the infamous garbage patches in the middle of the oceans have strikingly high densities of plastic, very few animals live here."

Hardesty said that improving waste management can reduce the threat of plastic on marine wildlife, even simple measures such as reducing packaging, banning single-use plastic items or charging an extra free to use them, and introducing deposits for recyclable items like drink containers.

"This is a highly important study that demonstrates just how pervasive plastics is in our oceans," said Dr. George H. Leonard, scientist at U.S.-based Ocean Conservancy. "Hundreds of thousands of volunteers around the world come face-to-face with this problem during annual Coastal Cleanup events. Scientists, the private sector and global citizens working together against the growing onslaught of plastic pollution can reduce plastic inputs to help protect marine biodiversity."

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