Observing the impacts of plastic in Canadian wildlife

I am a wildlife pathologist, and (as I see it) it is the job of my profession to identify trends in wildlife health and disease that may have broader impacts on populations as a whole. Many issues affecting wildlife however are invisible until we know to look for them. One such issue is the impact of plastic pollution on wildlife health.

Photo credit Jordi Segers

It might seem odd to refer to the impacts of plastics as “invisible” since almost everyone has seen the horrifying images of the giant “garbage patches” which accumulate in the gyres of all of the worlds oceans today. And certainly, many people have likely seen images on the internet of juvenile albatrosses and other ocean-going birds which have died due to emaciation caused by ingestion of large amounts of plastic debris. Indeed, plastics are very visible and their negative impacts perfectly apparent in these respects. However, it is the insidious and persistent nature of plastics that are right in front of us that many people have ceased to observe. Many of us no longer notice those plastic bags that are caught in the upper branches of the trees on your way to work. Or as we walk along a beach, we no longer perceive just how many of those tiny particles are in fact not sand but plastic. This is human nature. Plastic pollution has become a “normal” part of our environment and so we no longer actively observe its presence and therefore, in a way, it has become “invisible” to us.

These “everyday plastics” are not, however, invisible to the wildlife, and the single use plastic that we throw out today may ultimately end up impacting wildlife around the globe for generations to come. Although we now know that not every ocean-going species has a stomach that is bursting with plastic, the frequency and significance of wildlife-plastics interactions across Canada are currently unknown. Ingestion of massive amount of plastic in wildlife is more likely to be the exception rather than the rule, however it is entirely possible that chronic plastic ingestion over time could negatively impact body condition and therefore survival, particularly in juveniles. To answer some of these questions, the CWHC has begun an exciting collaboration with Environment and Climate Change Canada which will result in the systematic documentation of the presence and impacts of plastic across Canada.

Laura Bourque examining plastic pieces during the training session. Photo by Jordi Segers

The first stage of this collaboration is already complete and a number of our CWHC personnel (including myself) have undergone training in the standard operating procedures that are accepted by the international community for documenting plastics in wildlife. You can see an image of me counting teeny tiny bits of plastics which were extracted from the stomach of a herring gull here. I have learned that counting pieces of plastics is challenging owing to the fact that trying to differentiate between very tiny pieces of vegetation (such as wood) and very tiny pieces of plastics is not always straightforward. For challenging samples which are not easily differentiated visually, more advanced laboratory testing (such as raman spectroscopy) may be required. Once we have completed our “homework” and get the hang of extracting and then counting gastrointestinal plastics, we will apply our newfound plastics skills to our everyday wildlife necropsies. Initially this work will take the form of a proof of concept pilot study where we focus our efforts on species (such as gulls and fulmars) which are known to interact with plastics more commonly. Once we have perfected our skills on these species, we will expand our testing to a greater variety of species which, hopefully, will result in a long-term pan-Canadian database documenting the impacts of plastics in wildlife.

Submitted by:

Laura Bourque CWHC-Atlantic

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