Why it is important that more people are doing plastic pollution research, but in a coordinated fashion!

In 2007, when I started finding plastic pollution in the stomachs of Arctic seabirds as I was conducting diet studies as part of my MSc I was encouraged to note it down, perhaps it could be a side note to my thesis.

A piece of plastic from a Thick-billed murre from the Canadian Arctic in 2008 (Jennifer Provencher).

But these pieces of plastic in birds sampled in Lancaster Sound, deep in the Archipelago of the Canadian High Arctic intrigued me. There were different colours, shapes and sizes in the bird stomachs. Most pieces I couldn’t really relate to anything, no indication of source, not even a hint of where it came from. And I wanted to know more. It seemed crazy to me that these small plastic pieces could be decades old and travelled to remote landscapes where town populations number in the hundreds, and ships passing through each year in the dozens.

I was pointed in the direction of a protocol to quantify these plastic pieces by a colleague. The protocol was from the North Sea in Europe, where Jan van Franeker and his team in the region had developed a standard protocol to report plastic ingestion in northern fulmars as part of the ‘save the North Sea’ Program. In 2009 I travelled to Texel, a small island off the northern coast of the Netherlands to attend the annual fulmar workshop. Each year they hold a workshop in Texel where partners come to refresh their skills, and keep everyone’s procedures aligned. Each year Day 1 and 2 is spent on working together to make sure that the dissection of fulmars were being done in the same way by all the partners. Day 3 is then focused specifically on looking at plastic pieces together from fulmars to align reporting of plastic pieces.

You may think, counting plastic pieces, how hard can it be? But it is not just counting. Plastic pieces are counted, yes, but you need to sort and count by colour, size and shape. For example in the picture below, what colours do you see?

Ingested plastic pollution from a northern fulmar from the Canadian Arctic (Julia Baak).

How would you sort these colours into only eight categories (off-white/clear, grey-silver, black, blue-purple, green, orange-brown, red-pink or yellow)? Is the thread ball orange-brown or red-pink? It is not as easy as it looks when samples come from the environment where they may have floating at the surface of the water for months, covered in slime, and then sunk, ingested, excreted, ingested again and sat in a pool of digestive juices in a stomach as bones, rocks and other bits come and go.

But as with most things in science, the more you do it, the better you become. Over the years I opened the stomach of every bird I could get my hands on and looked for plastic pollution (among other things like parasites and bits of prey species). I taught students that I worked with the skills I had learned in Texel, and honed with practice. Over the years we have dissected and examined over 1000 birds from across Canada; birds collected by hunters, found on beaches, and accidentally caught in fishing nets. We have now looked in dozens of Canadian bird species, from seabirds to birds of prey; from ducks to shorebirds. Most species have shown to have low levels of plastic ingestion, but a few like the northern fulmar and the red phalarope have had high levels of plastic ingestion.

Fast-forward to 2020 and plastic pollution is no longer a side note, or an afterthought on most studies. Articles reporting how wildlife and plastic pollution in the popular media and peer-reviewed literature have proliferated over the last decade. A theme that runs through many of those reports are calls for standardization and harmonization of protocols and data. In fact, this have been a theme amongst review papers over the last several years, including the Canadian Science Plastics Agenda released in 2019 by Environment and Climate Change Canada.

A team of seabird researchers has worked collectively to harmonize collections and standardize reporting; from dissecting the birds, counting and measuring the plastic pieces, right down to how to report each metric measured. This has allowed the seabird community to produce data that is comparable across ocean basins, and shows similar latitudinal gradients in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

But to date, data has been collected opportunistically at best. There is a need to have more of a coordinated effort to better understand how birds and other wildlife are affected by plastic pollution. This includes the need to train people across the country to look for plastic pollution in seabirds. Many hands make light work as they say. In an ideal world, this means hands-on training, just as I had in Texel.

Hands-on training was the plan with partners at the CWHC when we started discussing how to best get more people examining plastic pollution in wildlife. Back before travel restrictions were in place an in-person workshop was planned where participants would be able to see and handle plastic piece examples from bird stomachs that have been dissected. But of course under the current travel restrictions the workshop went online. Which lead to sorting and shipping of samples in August to CWHC partners across the country.

Preparing and sorting plastic pollution samples to share with CWHC partners (Jennifer Provencher).

Instead the workshop participants were given homework and samples to work on. We reviewed how to categorize the plastics, and then each student examined their samples and reported back to the group. Through discussing the challenges and the decisions made for each sample, everyone started to better understand how to work with the samples, with the goal of standardizing the data.

A workshop participant report on plastic ingestion during the recent workshop with CWHC (Laura Bourque).

For the foreseeable future we won’t be able to have an annual workshop in Canada to hone our seabird and plastic pollution skills together as they do in Texel. Instead working with samples in our own regions, and sharing results and ideas online will have to do. And while the current pandemic has slowed sampling in many regions, the use of single-use plastic products have spiked in the last few months, so there is pressing need to know how wildlife may be affected by plastic pollution in the environment. So now more than ever ‘many hands make light work’ will help shed light on how plastic pollution is affecting wildlife. 

By Jennifer Provencher, ECCC.

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