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Seabirds take turn in welfare spotlight

Puppies and kittens often adorn the campaign images of animal welfare groups, leaving our avian friends in the dark.

But recently, seabirds have been thrust into the spotlight with concerns increasing over the devastating impact of ingested plastics.

According to an Environment and Communications References Committee senate report, the threat of marine plastic ingestion is increasing, with 95 per cent of seabirds expected to be affected by 2050.

The report also uncovers research into the density of marine plastic pollution, estimating that up to 12.7 million metric tonnes of plastic entered the oceanic environment in 2010, and will remain for decades.

Research Biologist at UTas Dr Heidi J Auman, says marine plastic debris poses an increasing threat to seabirds.

“Plastic debris is likely to cause physiological stress as a result of satiation and mechanical blockages,” she said.

“It is also likely to cause toxicological stress due to transfer of contaminants.”

Dr Auman has worked as a seabird biologist for 25 years, specialising in human impact including the effects of ingested marine plastic debris on albatrosses and shearwaters.

Some of the debris she has found throughout her research includes golf tees, cigarette lighters, children’s toys, dishwashing gloves, pens and medical waste.

Plastic ingestion in seabirds is also the subject of research currently being conducted by University of Tasmania PhD candidate Lauren Roman.

Ms Roman said that while it is too early to determine results at a population level, she has found that plastic ingestion is very widespread.

“The Short-tailed Shearwaters that live and breed here in Tasmania, the vast majority, 90 per cent plus of those, have marine debris ingestion,” she said.

“That in itself is quite shocking.”

Ms Roman said she hopes her research will determine the extent of the threat, and encourage funding allocation to reverse declines in seabird populations.

“(Petrel) seabirds are the world’s most threatened group of birds,” she said.

“More than half of the world’s species are declining and about a third of them are threatened with extinction.”

Injured seabirds can be taken to Bonorong wildlife sanctuary, where a specialised rescue facility has been built to rehabilitate seabirds before releasing them back into their natural habitat.

Bonorong Head Keeper Jason Graham said the facility has been extremely successful over its four-year operation.

“It’s been fantastic – it’s amazing when sea animals come in barely able to move and a few weeks later they are flying off again,” he said.

But Mr Graham also said most injuries treated at Bonorong are caused by humans, with discarded fishing equipment posing the greatest threat.

“Approximately one million seabirds a year are dying because of plastic ingestion, long line trawlers and local fishing impacts,” he said.

“A lot of these species are endangered as well – and if you take one piece of the puzzle out of the ecosystem, the whole thing can collapse.”

“We can’t just sit back and say ‘they’ll be right’”

Mr Graham also said that although seabirds are not as cute and cuddly as some marsupials, humans have an obligation to reduce their impact.

“A cormorant is definitely not as cute as a baby wombat, but that’s not their fault.”

“They’re not as charismatic, but they still have just as much right to live and be safe from human impacts as any other animal.”

Dr Auman says Tasmanians can reduce their impact by practicing more mindful consumer habits, including reducing, reusing and recycling plastics.

“As scientists, we are trying to understand and report this tragedy,” she said.

“We don’t have the power to solve it alone, but as a worldwide, and Tasmanian community, each of us can make a difference with every choice that we make.”

Some of the items found in the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick.

Dr Auman has written a children’s book inspired by her research. The book is entitled ‘Garbage Guts and aims to educate children about the impacts of discarded rubbish on seabirds. To purchase, visit garbageguts.net. If you wish to purchase a signed copy with a personalised message, please contact Heidi.Auman@utas.edu.au.

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