© Kristine B. Westergaard

5 things to know about Arctic seabirds and plastics

Seabirds play an important role in marine ecosystems and are culturally important for Arctic Indigenous Peoples. However, some Arctic seabird species are in decline due to threats such as overfishing food sources, climate change and pollution. Plastic pollution may exacerbate these declines.

Concentrations of plastics in the world's oceans are increasing. The Arctic is no exception, where increasing amounts have been found in both water and sea ice. To date, plastic pollution and the impacts on seabirds have been inconsistently monitored, but the Arctic Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF), is working to increase our knowledge.

CAFF’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) released a series of reports reviewing what we know about plastics ingestion by seabirds and plastic pollution policies in Arctic States, as well as recommendations for developing a monitoring plan for seabirds and plastic pollution. Here are five key takeaways from their findings.

1. Over half of seabirds examined for plastic in the Arctic were found to have ingested plastic

Of the seabird species examined for plastic ingestion in the Arctic, 53% were found to have ingested plastic. However, at the time of CAFF’s review, there were only 38 studies on plastic in Arctic seabirds, and many studies had small sample sizes or outdated data.

Photo: Jennifer Provencher

Seabirds can ingest plastic in a number of ways, including mistaking plastic debris for food or even acquiring it through the prey they eat. Eating plastic can cause harm to seabirds, including internal wounds, digestive blockages, a feeling of fullness resulting in reduced feeding or starvation, reduced body condition, and increased mortality. Rates of plastic ingestion can vary by what, when, where and how seabird species eat, amongst other factors, making some species more vulnerable than others.

Of the seabird species studied, those that feed at the ocean’s surface (where they may interact with floating plastics) had the highest incidences of plastic ingestion. For example, although these birds had low sample sizes, 93% of the fork-tailed storm petrel and 92% of short-tailed shearwater contained plastic. In the most widely studied species, the northern fulmar, 58% of samples contained plastic. However, many Arctic seabirds have not been studied.

Northern fulmar
© José Ortega

This review shows that plastic pollution is widespread in Arctic seabirds, but that there are still gaps in our knowledge that we need to fill. So it is important to continue monitoring seabirds for plastics ingestion and to study how plastics may impact them.

2. Seabirds can be used to track plastic pollution

Seabirds are migratory species, and many are top predators in their ecosystems. They’re also exposed to a number of environmental factors throughout their annual cycle that can affect their physiology and survival. This makes seabirds important indicators of changes that are occurring in the marine environment.

Seabirds are good candidates to track plastic pollution trends, for example, by assessing plastic ingestion at different times of the breeding and non-breeding season. Seabirds have different migratory patterns across different regions and can help determine regions with higher risks for plastic ingestion. Previous research has shown that northern fulmars and thick-billed murres collected earlier in the breeding season have a higher occurrence of plastics, suggesting that at least some of the plastic in birds may have been ingested from other regions during their migration North. Contrastingly, short-tailed shearwaters had more plastic during the breeding season than the non-breeding season, which suggests that Arctic seabirds may be vulnerable to plastic throughout their annual cycle.

Thick-billed murre
© José Ortega

3. There’s no comprehensive circumpolar plan in place for monitoring plastic ingestion by seabirds

Of the 38 studies found, many contained small sample sizes or failed to report important metrics of plastic ingestion, making it difficult to compare studies across regions and time. While studies are very useful to understand current plastic ingestion levels, long-term monitoring of species over time at the same location is the best tool to assess regional and temporal trends in plastic ingestion across the Arctic.

From a conservation perspective, long-term monitoring programs can be used to monitor not only the impacts of plastic pollution on seabirds, but also the effect of policies intending to reduce the harm that plastics can cause. However, most Arctic States lack standardized long-term monitoring programs on this issue, making it difficult to get an accurate circumpolar understanding of trends over time.

Long-term monitoring is important to inform larger conservation strategies and minimize the threats to seabird populations across the Arctic. Further, monitoring plans can help inform strategies and policies to address key issues and then determine their effectiveness over time.

4...But there are efforts in place to standardize monitoring plastic pollution and seabird ingestion of plastics

The need for standardized methods for monitoring plastic ingestion by seabirds in the Arctic has been highlighted by CAFF’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative. In its Plastic Pollution in Seabirds: Developing a program to monitor plastic pollution in seabirds in the pan-Arctic region report, CAFF proposes methods and advice for monitoring trends in plastic ingestion to inform larger conservation strategies and minimize the threats to seabirds across the Arctic.

The advice considers the knowledge on plastic ingestion, seabird conservation status, and the ability to monitor Arctic seabird species. CAFF advises the northern fulmar, black-legged kittiwake and thick-billed murre as target seabird species for monitoring plastic ingestion in the Arctic. Further, the report provides advice on monitoring spatial and temporal trends in plastic ingestion, nest incorporation and entanglement, microplastics and plastic-associated contaminants, point sources of plastic pollution and species of high conservation concern in the circumpolar Arctic. CAFF also encourages collaboration with local hunters, community members and other seabird and contaminant scientists to ensure standardized, systematic sampling of seabirds for plastic ingestion across the Arctic.

Black-legged kittiwake
© José Ortega

The Arctic Council under the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) has developed guidelines for monitoring plastic in the Arctic environment. AMAP’s Litter and Microplastics Monitoring Plan is the first time that all parts of an Arctic ecosystem are reviewed for traces of litter and microplastics – from the air to the bottom of the sea. AMBI’s seabird and plastics ingestion reports informed this monitoring plan.

5. Many Arctic States have marine plastic policies in place, yet few directly address plastic ingestion monitoring for seabirds

Marine plastic is an increasing global issue, making it a critical concern for scientists and policymakers alike. Various policies and programs have been implemented to prevent, reduce and monitor plastic in the marine environment. CAFF reviewed plastic pollution policies from Arctic States and found that there’s a broad range of international, national, regional and local policies and legislation that include marine litter, addressing both its sources and impacts in the region, but few policies directly address seabirds and other marine wildlife.

Some examples of international efforts include the Global Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals and the Convention on Biological Diversity, which encourage parties to address marine litter and its impact on marine and coastal biodiversity. While these conventions are important for global coordination and action, and serve as general frameworks, they still require implementation from Parties to address plastic pollution in seabirds and other wildlife. On the national and local level, while few policies directly address seabirds, there are policies that address marine litter specifically through waste management and preventing pollution from ships. However, many policies are implemented inconsistently across regions, making it difficult to enforce and monitor how effective these policies are.

Beach clean up in Iqaluit
© Jennifer Provencher

Regionally, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) is the only policy that has a component specifically addressing seabirds, where plastic ingestion by northern fulmars is monitored and used as an indicator for the marine environment. However, monitoring is only occurring in the Greater North Sea Area, and so far, Norway and Iceland are the only Arctic States that have implemented the seabird component of the OSPAR plastic pollution monitoring program.

The Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group (PAME) developed a Regional Action Plan on Marine Litter in the Arctic, with a focus on Arctic-specific marine litter sources and pathways. The Regional Action Plan will enable the Arctic Council to take targeted and collective action to address this problem within the Arctic and contribute to awareness of the Arctic-specific impacts. It’s focused on actions to be taken in the Arctic, by Arctic States collectively and independently, and is designed to be complementary to efforts underway in other international and regional organizations and conventions.

© Signe Christensen-Dalsgaard / Norwegian Institute for Nature Research

Seabirds are vital cultural resources to peoples in the Arctic and many species are susceptible to plastics ingestion. Arctic seabirds are also accessible and reliable indicators of the environment, and are already targets of study and monitoring effort across the Arctic. Therefore, seabirds are particularly important to consider when examining the marine ecosystem and designing policy to reduce marine litter and plastic pollution.

For more information, explore the series of plastic and seabird reports here.