Plastic Pollution on Lord Howe Island

Dr. Jennifer Lavers, Dr. Alex Bond & Dr. Ian Hutton

2011 - ongoing

Since 2011 Detached has supported Dr. Jennifer Lavers’ research and work on Lord Howe Island, regarding the impact of plastic pollution on oceans and marine life.

We’ve long known about the North Pacific Gyre (or Garbage Patch) where there is up to 20x more plastic in the ocean than plankton. We’ve seen tragic photos of thousands of Laysan Albatross chicks that have died as a result of ingesting plastic on remote islands in Hawaii. We have watched eminent speakers, like Captain Charles Moore, speak to captivated audiences about our addiction to plastic.

But what most people don’t realize is the North Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only one of its kind. There are at least five others, fed by more than 20 million items that enter the world’s oceans each and every day (~6.4 million tonnes of plastic per year). The wind and wave patterns that lead to the development of Gyres (some with more than 26,000 pieces of plastic per km²) redistribute this plastic around the globe, so that one country’s garbage washes up in another’s backyard. It’s time to reconsider the infamous quote ‘Garbage Patch the size of Texas’ and start thinking outside the box. Unlike Texas, ocean basins do not have boundaries. Our garbage is everywhere. Even in Antarctica.

So it’s not just the Laysan Albatross that comes into contact with plastic floating in the ocean. More than 135 marine species are known to ingest plastic, including fish and other animals at the very base of the marine food chain. This plastic accumulates toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at more than 100x the surrounding seawater concentrations. Once ingested, plastic can block or rupture the digestive tract and leak contaminants into the bird's blood stream resulting in stomach ulcerations, liver damage, infertility, and in many cases, death. Here in Australia, 90% of Flesh-footed Shearwaters Puffinus carneipes breeding on Lord Howe Island contain plastic. In 2011, one chick was found to have more than 275 pieces of plastic in its stomach (equivalent to an average human ingesting 10kg of plastic). Recent data indicate this species is one of the world's most heavily contaminanted seabirds and chicks that ingest large amounts of plastic have poor body condition and likely suffer reduced juvenile survival.

Not surprisingly, Flesh-footed Shearwater populations on Lord Howe Island and in New Zealand have declined significantly over the past few decades.

Read more about Dr. Jennifer Lavers here.

Flesh-footed Shearwater purging plastic

Flesh-footed Shearwater purging plastic