Plastics study finds age, size does matter for marine life - University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

Accessibility links

USC News

Plastics study finds age, size does matter for marine life

21 May 2019

A study measuring the size of plastic rubbish ingested by seabirds in Australia and New Zealand has found 90 percent fall within the “danger zone” of getting trapped in the bird’s gut.

The joint research by the University of the Sunshine Coast, CSIRO and the University of Tasmania is one of the first to measure the dimensions of rigid plastic items ingested by various species of petrels, the world’s most threatened bird group.

“We discovered that size does matter, with 90 percent of the plastics ingested by these sea birds falling within the range of 2-10 mm,” USC marine biologist Dr Kathy Townsend said.

“These sizes are much smaller than we originally thought, and worryingly, fragments of plastic less than 10 mm are the most abundant floating litter in the ocean,” she said of the findings, published in the latest edition of the Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“Items of this size are small enough to make it past the first part of the gut into the stomach but are too large to make their way out through the rest of the small intestine, causing blockages that can result in death.”

The research team measured 1694 rigid debris items from 348 carcasses of 20 species of petrels, collected from Australia and New Zealand over a five year period from 2013. Species includes short-tailed shearwaters, fairy prions and white-faced storm petrels.

The largest piece of plastic was over 5 cm long – the size of a USB stick.

The findings come as another USC research project uncovered further evidence of the dangers of plastics pollution to marine turtles and sea birds – including an almost intact shopping bag dating back almost 50 years found in mangroves near Moreton Bay.

Dr Townsend said the Coles Farmland bag was one of several old plastic bags and item rubbish collected during marine debris surveys along the SE Queensland coastline by a University research team.

“The logos on the plastic packaging are crystal clear allowing us to determine how long the items stay polluting our oceans and waterways, said Dr Townsend, who is using the survey results to measure the impact of Queensland’s new ban on single-use plastic bags.

“As we can see, plastic debris can last a very long time, increasing the ingestion risk to sea turtles and sea birds,” she said.

The Coles Farmland logo was used between 1971-79, making one of the bags found up to 48-years-old.

“A Woolworth’s plastic bag containing rubber gloves and a sarsaparilla can was found on the beach near Hervey Bay that we could date back to between 1976-1987 – making it at least 32-years-old.”

Seabirds are particularly susceptible to ocean pollution, commonly mistaking floating plastics for food, with studies showing that half of petrel species regularly ingested plastic waste.

Dr Townsend said these findings and earlier studies into the impact of ocean debris on marine life highlighted the need to reduce single-use plastic production and usage, increase recycling and prevent plastic from making its way to the sea.

— Clare McKay 

Plastic recovered from the stomach of a dead petrel

Related programs

Related articles

Who’s stealing the spanner crabs?
25 Nov

A USC study will determine if sharks are wrongly getting a bad rap for taking a bite out of Australia’s commercial spanner crab industry.

USC leads research into stocks of popular eating fish
12 Nov

Recreational and commercial fishers are being asked to play their part in important marine research by keeping an eye out for mahi mahi off the southern Queensland coastline that are sporting long orange ribbon-like tags.

New USC lab to focus on local research with global impact
27 Aug

USC has opened a specialist science laboratory on the Fraser Coast to facilitate pioneering ecological research into local wildlife, including whales, turtles and fish species.

Contact the USC media team

Name Position Email Phone
Terry Walsh Manager, Media and Messaging twalsh@usc.edu.au +61 7 5430 1160
Janelle Kirkland Media Relations Coordinator jkirklan@usc.edu.au +61 7 5459 4553
Clare McKay Media Relations Officer (Regional) cmckay@usc.edu.au +61 7 5456 5669

Search results for

Recent news