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Among marine debris, balloons are top killers of seabirds

A dead Black-browed Albatross in the sea, entangled in a balloon string. Photo by Todd Burrows

Last August, we described two reports from Virginia about the dangers discarded balloons pose to birds and other wildlife, especially on beaches.

Now, a study published in the journal Scientific Reports found that for seabirds, hard plastic accounts for the vast majority of debris ingested, but it is far less likely to kill than soft plastics such as balloons.

“Marine debris ingestion is now a globally recognized threat,” says lead author Lauren Roman, a doctoral student at the University of Tasmania. “However, the relationship between the amount or type of debris that a seabird ingests and mortality remains poorly understood. Among the birds we studied, the leading cause of death was blockage of the gastrointestinal tract, followed by infections or other complications caused by gastrointestinal obstructions.

“Although soft plastics accounted for just 5 percent of the items ingested, they were responsible for more than 40 percent of the mortalities.

“Balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality, and they killed almost one in five of the seabirds that ingested them.

“As similar research into plastic ingestion by sea turtles has found, it appears that while hard plastic fragments may pass quickly through the gut, soft plastics are more likely to become compacted and cause fatal obstructions,” Roman says.

A deceased Grey-headed Albatross next to balloon debris and a plastic straw. Photo by Lauren Roman

The data showed that a seabird ingesting a single piece of plastic had a 20 percent chance of mortality, rising to 50 percent for nine items, and 100 percent for 93 items.

Co-author Chris Wilcox says the approach taken in the study was first developed for turtles before being applied to seabirds.

“These two applications are the first time there has been a robust estimate of the impact of plastic ingestion on free-living marine species,” Wilcox says. “This is a critical step in triggering action to address plastic pollution.”

Roman adds that although the study showed that soft items like balloons are more dangerous, all plastics pose a mortal threat to seabirds.

“If seabirds eat plastic, their risk of mortality increases, and even a single piece can be fatal.

“While hard plastics are less likely to kill than soft plastics, they were still responsible for more than half of the seabird deaths identified in our study.

“The evidence is clear that if we want to stop seabirds from dying from plastic ingestion,” she explains, “we need to reduce or remove marine debris from their environment, particularly balloons.”

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Julie Craves explains how discarded balloons harm birds

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