Long term monitoring of plastics

Long term monitoring of plastics in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic

Start date
1 October, 2017
End date
1 October, 2020

This long-term study monitors the impact of marine plastics and other debris on breeding seabirds at Bird Island.

Researchers have monitored the levels of marine plastics and other material from human activity at Bird Island Research Station since austral summer 1992/93. Small but persistent amounts of marine plastic have been found in association with 12 species of seabirds. Items include fishing lines, squid jigs and floats, plastic wrappers, bags and bottle tops, likely to have been taken by birds whilst floating on the ocean surface and mistaken for natural prey. The majority of these items have been found in association with wandering and grey-headed albatrosses which forage for food over vast areas of ocean. Although we know that many items, including fishing gear (hooks and line) were obtained when scavenging behind demersal longline vessels, probably on the Patagonian Shelf, it was not possible to identify which fishing nations were responsible.

Debris found at seabird nest on Bird Island

Dr Lucy Quinn talks about the impact of plastics on albatrosses at Bird Island

Marine mammal entanglements

We have recorded incidences of marine mammals entangled in man-made debris since the 1980s. The majority of entanglements have been Antarctic fur seals caught in plastic packaging bands, synthetic line and fishing nets. Small numbers of animals are affected each year but this has reduced significantly since the introduction of legislation in the late 1980s prohibiting the disposal of plastics overboard and with improvements to the safe disposal of packaging bands. Scientists at our research bases at South Georgia and the South Orkney Islands have been able to remove the majority of entanglements from these seals; without such action, most of the affected animals would have died.

Young Fur Seal entangled in plastic debris

Beached marine debris

We have monitored levels of beached marine debris year-round at Main Bay, Bird Island since 1989 with over 9,000 items of debris recovered up until present day. Ninety-four percent of this debris is plastic, including Styrofoam, fishing equipment and packaging items. At Signy Island we have collected debris during the summer season from three beaches (Foca Cove, Cummings Cove and Starfish Cove) since 1996 with over 1,800 items recovered over this period, the majority of which was plastic packaging and fishery equipment.

Plastic debris on a beach at Bird Island
Plastic debris on Main Bay beach at Bird Island

This long-term monitoring study aims:

  • To quantify annual variation in the amount of plastic and other discarded items associated with seabirds and seals
  • To measure the volume and type of plastic and other man-made debris on beaches in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic
  • To estimate the amount of plastic, fishing gear and other material ingested by seabirds and, where possible, identify their sources (particularly fishing hooks)
  • To provide an index of the level of compliance with international policy prohibiting the deliberate dumping of plastics and fishing gear by vessels
A man smiling for the camera.

Michael Dunn

Signy Island Science Manager

Ecosystems team

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Richard Phillips

Seabird Ecologist, Deputy Science Leader, IMP 3

Ecosystems team

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Claire Waluda

Data Analysis CCAMLR

Ecosystems team

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