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High plastic pollution levels found in northwest coastal waters

Levels of plastic pollution in waters along the northwest coast of North America are reaching notoriously high levels, according to a study published online in the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Researchers lead by Stephanie Avery-Gomm, a graduate student in zoology at the University of British Columbia and lead author of the study, analyzed the stomach contents of beached northern fulmars.

Northern fulmars have been studied extensively as an indicator of pollution levels in the North Sea, which is notorious for its high rate of pollution. The birds are good biological monitors because they don't regurgitate inedible food and only forage at sea, according to Avery-Gomm.

The level of plastic recorded here in the eastern North Pacific is "in the same ballpark" as what has been recorded in the historically-polluted North Sea, she said.

"The birds are eating a lot of plastic," Avery-Gomm said, "Plastic pollution here is a lot higher than we thought it would be."

The study also found that the level of plastic pollution in the eastern North Pacific has increased in the last 40 years. Previous studies conducted in the 1970s and '80s showed 84 per cent of beached birds had plastic in their stomachs, as opposed to the 92 per cent Avery-Gomm's study found. The average amount of plastic in each bird also increased from .04 grams in the previous studies to .385 grams.

Avery-Gomm says it's safe to say there is "an increasing trend" of plastic pollution in the northeastern Pacific, and that the increase is consistent with data from the rest of the world.

"And that's what everybody else has found everywhere else: plastic in the marine environment is increasing."

Such results are surprising, because B.C.'s ocean currents aren't connected to the spinning gyre of currents in the rest of the Pacific -- which means any increase in plastic pollution in the area comes from regional and local sources.

While she knew she would find some plastic, the amount found was more than Avery-Gomm expected.

"Every bird I opened had plastic in it, and it was definitely surprising," she said.

According to Avery-Gomm, a program needs to be put in place to annually monitor the northern fulmars' plastic intake. Currently, there is no official group monitoring them. The study relied on volunteers from groups like the Canada Beachbird Survey Program and similar programs in the U.S. to send her birds they found on their beach walks.

Ocean and beach cleaning programs could help reduce the amount of pollution, she suggested.

"If people are aware of the problem they can also reconsider their use of plastic, especially single-use plastic. I certainly have," she said. "Since starting this project I see plastic everywhere."

Hanah Redman is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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