The Mediterranean region is identified as one of the global areas most at risk for endangered seabirds due to the accumulation of plastic and marine debris. Seabirds are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of plastic pollution because they often mistake plastic items for food or inadvertently ingest them while feeding in the ocean.
The Mediterranean Sea, like many other marine ecosystems, faces challenges from plastic pollution caused by various sources, including improper waste management, littering, and microplastics from larger plastic items breaking down over time. Plastic debris can harm seabirds in several ways, including causing physical injury, reducing their ability to forage and digest food properly, and even leading to entanglement in fishing gear or other debris.
Plastic pollution is a global issue affecting marine environments worldwide, and many regions face significant threats to marine life and ecosystems due to this problem. Conservation efforts, such as promoting responsible waste disposal and recycling, reducing single-use plastics, and raising awareness about the impacts of plastic pollution, are crucial to safeguarding the marine environment and the species that depend on it.
A recent study published in Nature Communications has shed light on the areas most susceptible to plastic exposure for endangered seabirds. This pressing issue has gathered the efforts of over 200 researchers from around the world to address the growing threat plastic pollution poses to marine life. Dr. Maria Dias, a researcher at the Centre for Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Changes (cE3c) at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon, led the study, which highlights the Mediterranean as the region facing the highest global risk. Additionally, the Exclusive Economic Zone of Portugal, particularly around the Azores and Madeira, is identified as a moderately risky area for the bird species inhabiting and feeding there.
Seabirds are among the most endangered groups worldwide, with about a third of their species classified as "vulnerable," "endangered," or "critically endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's red list.
To arrive at these findings, the research team analysed data from 77 seabird species, including over 7,000 individuals with 1.7 million tracked positions using remote devices, along with global maps of plastic concentration. By correlating this information, the researchers could pinpoint the areas where birds are most exposed to plastic waste and determine which species and populations are most affected.
The data revealed that plastic risk is not evenly spread due to its accumulation in regions where ocean currents and tides facilitate its concentration. Seabird distribution also varies significantly throughout their annual cycle since many are migratory species capable of flying thousands of kilometres over the sea. Consequently, when high concentrations of birds and plastic overlap, the risk escalates substantially.
The study highlights several critical areas for seabirds, including the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Northwest and Northeast Pacific, the South Atlantic, and the Southwest Indian Ocean. Moreover, species that are already endangered due to factors like invasive species, bycatch, or climate change are more susceptible to plastic exposure, making their fragile situation even more precarious if the plastic problem worsens.
These research results can now serve as a valuable tool for countries worldwide to manage and conserve their marine environments. However, solving this issue poses challenges, as many species are at greater risk of encountering plastic waste in waters beyond their breeding territories and in international waters. This necessitates international cooperation, dialogue among various stakeholders, and more complex responses to address the problem effectively.
In today's world, it is undeniable that plastic has become an integral part of our lives, infiltrating nearly every aspect of our daily routines. However, rather than avoiding its use entirely, our best approach to combat the environmental repercussions lies in tackling the root cause - our unsustainable consumer habits.
To truly make a difference, we must shift our focus towards offering innovative technology solutions that address the challenges posed by the throwaway society. By investing in research and development, we can introduce more eco-friendly materials, advanced recycling methods, and efficient waste management systems. Through a combination of education, conscious choices, and technology-driven solutions, we can pave the way for a greener future, reducing our reliance on single-use plastics and ensuring a healthier planet for generations to come.