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Linking plastic ingestion research with marine wildlife conservation Stephanie Avery-Gomm

Plastic pollution in the ocean is an ever-increasing problem that reaches the world’s most remote places.

Each year, more than 5 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the oceans from land, and that figure may be as high as 12.7 million metric tons.

This has the potential to impact marine species, like turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, in a significant way. Over the last 50 years, the number of studies documenting plastic ingestion has increased with the problem. These studies aim to provide a baseline for future comparison, and we now know that at least 44% of marine species ingest some amount of plastic.

Lead author Stephanie Avery-Gomm documents plastic discovered in a seabird's stomach.

While this research has helped raise the profile of plastic as a pollutant, there is a big gap between research examining the plastic pollution and wildlife conservation.

There is a need to think creatively about how plastics research, conservation action, and policy could be better connected for the best conservation outcomes.

In a recent paper, we presented ideas to further the discussion on how to better connect plastic ingestion research and wildlife conservation by prioritising studies that signify plastic pollution as a population-level threat, identify vulnerable animal populations, and evaluate strategies for mitigating impacts.

Plastic is both a macro-contaminant, causing physical damage, and a micro-contaminant, due to the leaching of chemicals. Efforts to understand toxicological effects are complicated from producers not openly publishing what goes into making their plastic.

The benefit of plastic ingestion research to marine wildlife could be improved greatly by establishing a stronger understanding of how discoveries could be integrated into conservation policy and practice.

The most valuable plastic ingestion research provides information that will help us to better choose between actions or help us identify new actions to achieve positive conservation outcomes.

Research that answers these questions for wildlife managers will be of the greatest value:
  • 'Is plastic ingestion contributing to the decline of the population I manage?’
  • 'How does it compare to other threats?’
  • ‘Should I allocate resources to mitigating these impacts?’
Plastic debris found in the gut of a Dovekie - ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27609235

Wildlife populations face an array of threats. Many of these are better understood than plastic pollution (e.g., over-exploitation, incidental catch, habitat destruction), and are obvious priorities for near-term conservation interventions.

However, there is little chance that plastic pollution is having no impact on wildlife. If we assume that further study will reveal plastic ingestion to have measurable, negative impacts on some populations, it is logical to think creatively about how impacts may be addressed.

Tackling this huge and growing problem will require global cooperation to identify specific, measurable, time-bound goals to reduce plastic waste from freely flowing into our oceans. This will likely take decades to achieve.

Plastic debris found in the gut of a Dovekie is stored in jars - ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27609235

Research conducted so far has helped raise awareness of the threat of plastic, its effects, and created a movement of plastic prevention and finding alternative materials. The big benefits of plastic ingestion research will be seen when informed by a broader community with a better understanding of how research can be incorporated into conservation and policy actions.

Lead author Stephanie Avery-Gomm

Media: Stephanie Avery-Gomm, s.averygomm@uq.net.au, @saverygo; CEED Communications, Casey Fung, c.fung@u.edu.au

Credits:

Created with images by on_hold - "safety net spirit network plastic waste"

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