The South Atlantic sports some of the most remote islands on the planet – paradises of biodiversity protected from many of the ways we have endangered species around the world. And yet human actions are affecting these islands as well, and plastic pollution in the oceans is to blame.
In a new study published in Current Biology, researchers highlight how the amount of plastic pollution on the shores of these islands has increased 10-fold in just 10 years. For the first time, their beaches are experiencing levels of pollution similar to that seen in the North-Atlantic coastline.
The team conducted four research cruises between 2013 and 2018. The researchers sampled the oceans (water surface, water column, and seabed), surveyed beaches, and examined over 2,000 animals from 26 different species. Every single investigation showed an increase in plastic pollution.
“Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine. Plastic waste has increased a hundred-fold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds,” lead author Dr David Barnes, from British Antarctic Survey, said in a statement. “Understanding the scale of the problem is the first step towards helping business, industry and society tackle this global environmental issue.”
The study showed that the highest concentration of plastic was found on beaches, where it made up more than 90 percent of all debris found there. In the 2018 mission, researchers discovered that on average there were more than 300 items per meter of shoreline on the islands of St Helena and East Falkland.
Animals suffer in multiple ways from plastic, including becoming tangled or hurt by debris. They might also eat it, which can lead to both poisoning and starvation. Invasive species might hitch a ride on makeshift plastic rafts as well, something that could be a disaster for these delicate ecosystems.
“These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet’s health. It is heart-breaking watching Albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere,” added biologist Andy Schofield, from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. “This is a very big wake up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health.”
The study truly shows how the impact of plastic pollution affects remote protected areas. Most of the plastic from the ocean comes from rivers, but operations to limit this influx have been limited so far.