APPLEDORE ISLAND, Maine — For years, undergraduate student interns and their faculty mentors at the Shoals Marine Laboratory have been monitoring and researching tern and seagull populations at the Isles of Shoals. Lately, though, they have noted a disturbing trend — an increasing introduction of plastic in the birds’ ecology: hard plastic, polystyrene, fishing line, fibers and, the most ubiquitous of all, small pieces of single-use plastic bags.
“Plastic is a big issue for seabirds in general, and it’s come to our attention as an important factor,” said Executive Director Jennifer Seavey. “We’ve had a lot of anecdotal information. We’ve seen plastic in the colony around their nests and in their nests. And the observational data makes you wonder if it’s a problem or not.”
As a result, the Shoals Marine Laboratory this summer is embarking on a pilot project to begin to quantify the amount and type of plastic found in the environments of herring and black-backed gulls on Appledore Island, and common and roseate terns on Seavey and White Islands. It will be a multi-year study that will build on the information garnered by student scientists each summer, with the goal of being able to add to what is now a small but increasingly recognized dataset on the effects of plastics in seabirds.
“This research field is in its – well if not its infancy stage, its elementary school stage,” said Seavey. “People have not been looking at plastics for all that long. The methods are just now being developed. I am probably among a group of people who are collectively really pushing this research.”
And it’s important information to gather, she said. New Hampshire has declared the common tern a threatened species, and roseate terns are federally endangered. Even populations of the ever-present seagulls are diminishing in the Gulf of Maine. It is estimated that in almost 700 marine species, plastic is a factor. By 2050, 99 percent of seabird species and 95 percent of all bird species will have ingested plastic, Seavey said.
What are the implications of this plastic ingestion? That is one question in a virtual ocean of questions that are being raised through the Seabird and Plastic Pollution Internship.
“There’s mostly anecdotal information now. And there are not many researchers in the Gulf of Maine studying this. So in that sense, we will be contributing to that story significantly here. Because we know they’re ingesting it,” said Seavey.
Aliya Caldwell, who will be entering her junior year at Rutgers University in ecology evolution and natural resources, was selected from among 20 or so applicants as the research intern for this inaugural season of the study.
The internship is among eight for undergraduate students offered at the Shoals Marine Laboratory this summer. Others are studying parasite ecology in green crabs, intertidal ecology, gull population biology, and aquatic ecology. All are paid a weekly stipend and are provided with room and board.
Separately, engineering students come every summer to learn about the engineering challenges of supplying power and water to an island. This year, a sustainability communications internship was also offered.
As this is the first year of the plastic study, the methodology tailored to the Isles of Shoals had to be established. According to Caldwell, it quickly became apparent that in the “field setting” of the island, as opposed to a sterile “lab setting,” it would be impossible to study microplastics. “These are tiny pieces infinitely smaller than 1 millimeter. So we decided to limit ourselves to 1 millimeter or larger. There is plastic that we are losing, but it’s too complicated to look at stuff smaller than that.”
So, for instance, gull and tern guano would be a logical substance in which to measure plastic ingestion, but the size would be at the microplastic level. Polystyrene is an example of a plastic that quickly breaks down into microplastics, she said.
Seavey said in future years, if funding can be found, she would like to partner with a lab to study guano “because that’s everywhere. You’re always looking for the least expensive way to figure something out so you can get the maximum amount of information.”
This year, Caldwell has been collecting specimens from several sources: from fish and birds found dead that are “opportunistically” collected and dissected (the laboratory does not terminate the life of a bird for study), and from regurgitated pellets – indigestible material like crab parts, bones, pebbles and, in most of the samples Caldwell has collected, plastic. When terns are being banded they will often throw up as a stress response, “and we pick up that too.”
“It could be good that we’re finding it in the pellets. That may mean they are not accumulating it in their bodies,” said Caldwell.
The actual plastic itself attracts not only biological material but toxins in the ocean, said Seavey. Biological material like algae and kelp basically adheres to the plastic, over time forming a coating. Seabirds that don’t ever come ashore, like the albatross, are dying from plastic ingestion because they see something like a kelp mass that has a core of plastic, she said.
In addition, plastic also attracts toxins like pesticides in the ocean, and the plastic itself has estrogen mimickers, which could have long-term impacts on the birds.
Caldwell said she is finding the most evidence of plastic in the pellets she collects. She breaks the pellets up and puts the material in a 1mm mesh strainer, then washes out all the micro-elements and studies what remains under a microscope.
To date she’s found fragments of hard plastic such as from a tool or appliance, fishing line, fibers from items such as clothing, polystyrene and “nurdles” -tiny balls of plastic that serve as the raw material to manufacture items. Seavey said there have been several “famous” nurdle disasters at sea, where a shipping container filled with them falls off a ship and spill their contents.
But by far the most prevalent plastic is from single-use bags, said Caldwell.
“A lot of times, you can see by eye a piece of plastic bag. For the smaller ones, there are rules about color and texture and edges that give them away. If I still can’t tell, I’ll dye the contents with a pink dye that stains the biological material. And if I’m still not sure, I touch it with a hot poker and smell it.”
Caldwell has made several observations from her work thus far. For one, she has not found evidence of plastic in terns – “which may mean they’re not ingesting plastic but may also mean they are not ingesting it in the size range we’re looking at. For them, the plastics are coming from fish, who are probably ingesting plastic at the (very small) plankton level.”
For another, herring gulls, well studied for their forays to landfills, are ingesting more plastic that black-backed gulls. There’s not as much research on black-backed gulls, said Caldwell, so this line of inquiry would be worthwhile to explore in future years.
Seavey and Liz Craig, the tern conservation program manager for the Shoals Marine Lab and the second mentor on the project, will sift through the data collected by Caldwell over the winter, “just to make sure there aren’t any messages we missed,” said Seavey. And Seavey will also likely look for a sterile lab partner, and the funding to contract with the lab, as well.
As the work continues, who knows what questions will crop up, she said.
“Say, Portsmouth adopts a plastic bag ban. York already has one. And before long you start seeing a decline. That would be fabulous. How long should we be monitoring? Five years, ten years? Once researchers have a uniform methodology, things could move quickly,” said Seavey.
“Once we have the methodology, we can ask the next question. Good science will feed the next question,” she said. “This is a great example of how science is built, how knowledge is built.”
And once there’s data to share, she said, the public can be sure she will share it with people on the mainland in addition to other scientists, to inform their decisions on the use of plastics.
“We’ll never get rid of plastics. It’s done so many wonderful, good things for humanity. But we have to decide what is the good stuff we want to keep – like artificial body parts and that sort of thing — and what’s the stuff that’s really unnecessary and a waste. We’ll have to figure that out as a society, but certainly the impacts to wildlife will help inform decisions about the more dangerous forms of plastic.”
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