Plastic is not the main problem for ocean life?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

A study estimates that around 90% of all seabirds alive have eaten plastic at least once [1]. In some cases eating plastic can kill animals, by choking them or blocking their stomach [2,3,11]. Animals are also killed by getting trapped in plastic nets [13]. Microplastics (bits of plastic smaller than 5mm [9]) are eaten by animals and passed up the food chain [4]. This means that animals at the top of the food chain may get high doses of plastic, as well as harmful organic pollutants that attach to the plastic itself [4]. This is thought to cause infertility in animals such as whales [14]. The full consequences of plastic on natural and human life are still unknown [10,12].

Although this is a scary thought, for most marine species there are much greater threats [8,15]. Seabirds, for example, are most in danger from invasive species [5,8]: when humans introduce species to places where they did not evolve, this can cause huge problems [6]. Rats introduced to islands where there were previously few predators, for example, can result in all the seabird chicks being eaten, sometimes resulting in extinction of the species [5]. These species are often also affected by plastic pollution, but plastic is far less likely to kill a bird than a rat is [8]!

The biggest threat to marine life in general is not plastic or rats though: it’s fishing. This affects the fish being targeted, and other animals that lose their food or are caught by accident [17,8]. For example, at least 300,000 whales and dolphins are killed accidentally by fishing boats each year [20].

Plastic pollution is a serious problem, but at the moment there are worse threats for wildlife [17]. In the long-term, climate change is a much larger threat [8,16,17]. Plastic has probably got so much attention because it is much more visible than other problems [12]. We should continue to fight he plastic problem, but we should also aim to make other problems, like overfishing and climate change, more ‘visible’ to the public, so that we can get strong political responses to them like we have recently had to plastic [18,19]. This way, we can help the planet much more!

References

[1] https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/08/27/1502108112

[2] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0025326X10000986

[3] https://pacificseabirdgroup.org/~pacifics/publications/MB_of_NOPAC/SP1993_CWS_EC_21.pdf

[4] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0269749113005642

[5] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1523-1739.2007.00859.x

[6] https://tinyurl.com/y68q96x2

[8] https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/5ac6/3534ae5e138bb193e36c387faaecb6e62e4b.pdf

[9] https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/microplastics.html

[10] https://www.publish.csiro.au/mf/pdf/MF14087

[11] https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2008.0205?casa_token=SMdCAWHCsDoAAAAA:TSp90mVacIkMgKJEn0y-AWJ4bE0SPjGZaKZVJN2YhO1II7TEx42CUvLli57eDn32xvcEnru85KSHU68

[12] https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/plastic-oceans-pollution-microplastics-evidence-harm-recycling-dumping-waste-a8275416.html

[13] https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Laist/publication/235768493_Impacts_of_Marine_Debris_Entanglement_of_Marine_Life_in_Marine_Debris_Including_a_Comprehensive_List_of_Species_with_Entanglement_and_IngestiOn_Records/links/02bfe5136037d75c73000000.pdf

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/27/plastics-leading-to-reproductive-problems-for-wildlife

[15] https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment

[16] https://twitter.com/ipbes/status/1126260249541906439?lang=en

[17] https://www.ipbes.net/sites/default/files/downloads/spm_unedited_advance_for_posting_htn.pdf

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/apr/14/government-sets-aside-fund-to-fight-plastic-waste-oceans

[19] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/07/ocean-plastic-pollution-solutions/

[20] https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/endangered_species/cetaceans/threats/bycatch/

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