Plastic waste threat to marine life

A nationwide clean-up of Britain’s beaches is under way this weekend amid growing concern over the threat from litter to fish, birds, reptiles and marine mammals.

More than 4,000 volunteers are expected to help with the clear-up which takes place just day after the World Conservation Union published its latest Red Book of threatened species an warned of a global ‘crisis’, saying: ‘Life in the oceans is disappearing fast.’ The most endangere species include three types of albatross and the Yangtze river dolphin, which had been reporte as extinct until one was filmed last month

In the UK more marine species are under threat of extinction than any other type, and half of all animals in Britain are thought by some experts to live in or depend on coastal areas.

Fishing is still thought to be the leading threat to marine life, but experts are increasingly concerned about the threat of pollution, alongside habitat destruction and climate change.

The Wildlife Trusts say it is estimated that 177 species of reptiles, mammals and fish are at risk as a result of consuming litter at sea. This figure is based on the type of animals found around the coast and autopsies on sharks, whales, turtles and dolphins,

‘Of all the hazardous materials littering our seas today, plastic poses the greatest threat,’ said Emma Snowden, project officer of the Marine Conservation Society, which is organising the clean-up.

‘It causes death and injury to hundreds of thousands of seabirds and marine species every year through swallowing and entanglement. Items of particular danger to marine wildlife include plastic bags, drink cans and fishing nets.’

Another concern is the thousands of balloons which find their way into the sea every year, leading Plymouth to ban mass balloon releases on council land.

One danger is that animals swallow plastic, which can suffocate them or give an artificial sense of being full, leading to starvation. Another is that fish and birds get caught up in the plastic at sea or when they use it to build their nests, and drown, starve or become easy prey.

Longer term, plastics can break down into tiny particles which are eaten by smaller species and passed up the food chain. ‘In a sense we’re eating our own waste,’ said Snowden.

Last year MCS volunteers covered 350 of Britain’s 1,000-plus beaches, where they recorded nearly 2,000 items of rubbish per kilometre and collected more than 3,000 bags of litter. Since the event began in 1993, litter of all types has increased around the country, said Snowden.

Worldwide, the United Nations Environment Programme has calculated there are 13,000 pieces of plastic litter per square kilometre of the world’s oceans.

One of the worst affected oceans is thought to be the Pacific – perhaps, suggests Howard Freeland of the Canadian Institute of Ocean Sciences, because large parts of the North American western seaboard, where the currents and winds wash the rubbish, are remote and rarely visited.

‘For many of our beaches the rate of supply is small but constant [while] the rate of removal is almost nil,’ said Freeland.

The problem is of growing concern to conservationists around the world, said Grahame Madge, conservation spokesman for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

‘It’s something conservationists are just beginning to realise the true impact of. Clearly that’s not only affecting birds but turtles and a range of other species.’

Campaigners hope the clean-up will add weight to a campaign for the government to go ahead with a promised marine bill in the next parliamentary session, which would create more marine protected areas.