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Market News

 September 23, 2013
This bird wants to tell you what it thinks about your use of plastic

 The northern fulmar, an ocean-living bird that looks something like a gull, is ingesting large quantities of plastic from the ocean. Although its populations seem not to be declining, the incidence of plastic found in carcasses washed ashore on beaches off the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans in the northern hemisphere have an alarming tale to tell.

This month, Bird on the Beach project, is organizing an art installation of a large, floating bird at Vanier Park to bring awareness to the issue of plastics pollution in the oceans. Workshops every Thursday evening include art-making and presentations.

"The northern fulmar is telling us that marine plastic pollution is a serious issue and warrants further action," says Karen Barry of Bird Studies Canada at a talk on BC Beached Birds: Indicators of Plastic Pollution and other Environmental Conditions.

Between 2009 and 2012, Barry and Stephanie Avery-Gomm worked with Bird Studies Canada volunteers and others on a research study published in July 2012 that proposed the northern fulmar as an indicator of plastics pollution in oceans. Volunteers involved in the citizen science program found over 100 northern fulmar along Tofino-Ucluelet beaches in the fall of 2009. Thirty-six intact carcasses were frozen and then analyzed. All were emaciated and in poor condition; over 95% of the birds had plastic in their gut: plastic fragments, twine, rope, fishing line, styrofoam, bottle caps, fiber, sponge, candy wrappers. Results from Beached Bird surveys in BC from 2002-2102 show that northern fulmars and glaucous winged gulls were the two most common species found, together comprising over 50% of the birds found.

"200 species are known to be directly harmed through plastics in the ocean," Barry explains. The northern fulmar is a good indicator because of their high numbers and the range over which they are found. Monitoring the amount of plastic found in carcasses can indicate the effect on other marine life as well.

"Plastic is broken down to smaller and smaller pieces through mechanical motion, such as waves, or through ultraviolet radiation from the sun. But it never disappears," Barry explains. She adds that we don't know whether the birds are nibbling bits of plastic directly or from consuming other marine life who have taken in plastic.

In 2013, Stephanie Avery-Gomm examined 115 specimens from over 20 species of marine birds in BC. And yet Avery-Gomm found only one gull with plastic compared to the high incidence in northern fulmars. The two birds are of a similar size and colouring. But there the similarity seems to end. The big difference in terms of plastic ingestion may be that the gull does not live out on the open ocean. Also the northern fulmar consumes material on or near the surface of the ocean -- where plastic floats, while gulls typically dive for their food. Northern fulmars cannot easily regurgitate material, whreas gulls do. So gulls may be taking plastic in but then spitting it out again.

One of the attendees, Eckhardt Ferdinandi, has been a volunteer Beached Bird surveyor for six years. With Janet Schindler, they have done monthly Beached Bird surveys at Sunset Beach. They have found several bird carcasses, glaucous-winged gulls and cormorants, although the deaths of the birds did not appear to be related to ingestion of plastic. The 100 or so volunteers involved in the program are given beached bird survey tags and rulers so they can take a photo to indicate size. Some volunteers collect carcasses and freeze them for analysis, but Barry is quick to point out that this is optional.

Unless you venture out to the open ocean, you're unlikely to see a live northern fulmar. Barry says, "Your chances of seeing a northern fulmar at the beach is slim to none in the Vancouver area." But if you go off-shore, you'll find plenty of them over a wide range of territory in Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans. "I call them my chickens, " says Margo Elfert, a marine biologist who regularly goes to sea through her work. "I just throw out any fish offal, and they come around to eat." Elfert, a member of the Suzuki Council of Elders, emphasizes, "The crews are good at making sure that no plastic garbage goes overboard."

Barry's talk was the first of a series of workshops on Thursday evenings that include both presentations and time to create art from recycled plastic in preparation for Worldwide Bird Art Installation Day and Culture Days. Environmental, nature and neighbourhood groups are invited to participate with a display or short presentation on Sunday, September 29, between 12 noon and 5pm at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Around 3pm, the bird art installation will be launched from the beach just east of the museum. It will then be anchored in Heritage Harbour for a month.