A research program finds that 80 to 85 per cent of Northern Fulmar birds in the Arctic have plastic in their bodies.

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Author: Jimmy Thomson, The Narwhal

Plastic is not only ending up in the Arctic, it’s also being found throughout the food chain.

Resolute, Nunavut, is nearly 3,000 km directly north of Winnipeg. It’s a tiny hamlet of fewer than 200 people, nestled into the tundra of Cornwallis Island on the northern side of Lancaster Sound. It is, in other words, a long way from the busy cities and shipping corridors more commonly associated with plastic pollution.

And yet.

The evidence is starting to stack up that not only is plastic finding its way to the Arctic, but that it’s already present throughout the environment — in the water, on the beaches and in the sediment on the ocean floor. It’s being found inside the birds, the fish, the mammals and the invertebrates alike. And its long-term consequences for everything from ecosystem-wide food webs down to individual health are yet unknown.

An ongoing research program in partnership with the Inuit hamlet of Resolute and three other Arctic communities is finding plastic even there, building up in the stomachs and colonies of northern fulmars.

The program has found that 80 to 85 per cent of northern fulmars in the Arctic have plastic in their bodies.

“We can actually feel it often before we open up the stomach,” says lead researcher Jennifer Provencher, a post-doctoral fellow at Acadia University. “It’s very visible.”

The birds eat pieces of plastic, usually under a millimetre in size, as they scoop up prey from the surface of the ocean.

Many of the bits get stuck in the stomach and accumulate there.

“We can actually feel it often before we open up the stomach.” —Jennifer Provencher

“We know the birds are absorbing it,” Provencher says; chemicals are leaching from the plastic into the fulmars’ bodies.

The consequences of that absorption on the birds’ health are still uncertain, but some chemicals in plastics can disrupt hormones or even be passed down to the next generation through the eggs.

Not all the plastic stays in the birds, though. Plastic pieces and fibres may also be deposited through feces back in the colony, potentially contaminating the land and water nearby.

“What’s really interesting is that when you have these birds that are colonial — can be tens of thousands of individuals — if they’re all pooping in one place, what does that mean for microplastics around the colony?” Provencher asks.

“Are the birds making a kind of halo of microplastics around the colonies?”

Her research team is now partnering with Inuit communities to answer that question. Hunters and other community members are going out and taking water samples, as well as collecting shellfish and birds to measure the amount of microplastics the birds are bringing home with them.

Plastic in the Arctic

All of this plastic probably isn’t originating in the Arctic; there just isn’t the population density or industrial activity.

A new paper published in Nature Communications couldn’t pin down the actual origin of the plastics, but suggested much of it could be coming from “the relatively highly [microplastics]-contaminated offshore North Atlantic waters.” Troublingly, it also found that sea ice itself is a repository for the contaminants, much of which will be released as the ice melts.

That result was backed up by a study of sea-floor sediments in the High Arctic — the further north the researchers looked, the more microplastics they found on the bottom of the ocean. That’s reflected on the land, too. On beaches in Svalbard, an archipelago halfway between the northern tip of Norway and the North Pole, citizen scientists collected nearly 1,000 kilograms of litter — as much as half a kilo per square meter on some beaches — largely related to fisheries.

Provencher is also looking at the possibility that the birds themselves are bringing plastics back to the Arctic with them after they return from their wintering grounds in the North Atlantic.

They aren’t the only species in the Arctic suffering from the influx of man-made material. There’s a growing body of evidence that invertebrates, fish, mammals and even humans are accumulating plastics in their bodies.

A study published in 2017 found a small number of young polar cod, one of the keystone species in Arctic ecosystems, had bits of plastic in their stomachs.

“With increasing human activity, plastic ingestion may act as an increasing stressor on polar cod in combination with ocean warming and sea-ice decline,” the authors wrote.

Students at Nunavut Arctic College dissect a bird. Inuit students are important contributors to Provencher’s research. Photo: Jennifer Provencher.

That’s especially worrying because polar cod are connected to many of the other species in the Arctic: they’re eaten by birds, seals, beluga whales and other fish; those species, in turn, can end up as food for polar bears and orcas. The plastics or their toxic ingredients could thus be found even in species that don’t eat them directly — including humans.

“Globally, microplastics have been documented in over 700 species,” says researcher Rhiannon Moore. That includes species all the way up to sperm whales, like the young whale that washed up in Spain in February with 29 kilograms of plastic in its stomach and an associated abdominal infection.

Through the Ocean Wise program at the Vancouver Aquarium, Moore is studying plastic accumulation in beluga whale food webs in the western Canadian Arctic. It’s a relatively pristine and, in terms of ocean currents, isolated area she says is “a pretty big unknown” in terms of the effects and concentration of plastics.

That goes for much of the Canadian coastline, the longest in the world. Canada does not have a national microplastics research program; Provencher’s fulmar study is working from the longest-running dataset in the country.

Her work has found that Canada’s oceans are actually — on a global scale — relatively clean in terms of plastic pollution. Despite the vast majority of fulmars having some plastic in their bodies, the numbers were only slightly worse than the North Atlantic standard for a healthy population.

In Europe, populations are faring much worse.

Provencher says her results show the standard is actually achievable. It shows that, with less plastic in the water, the fulmars eat less and accumulate less.

Simply put, it provides hope.

‘More complex than just plastic straws’

Trying to find out when studies of plastic pollution in the Arctic began is an exercise in cultural archaeology. A search through the published studies prior to the 1970s mostly brings up results in which researchers are figuring out more ways to put plastic to use in the Arctic, and how to make it work better there.

In the first years of that decade, though scientists’ attention shifted, after seaweed researchers Edward Carpenter and Kenneth Smith started pulling in nets full of bits of plastic in the Sargasso Sea.

“The occurrence of these particles have not yet been noted in the literature,” they mused in a paper published in the journal Science in 1972. “The increasing production of plastics, combined with present waste-disposal practices, will probably lead to greater concentrations on the sea surface.”

They weren’t wrong. At the time, Carpenter and Smith were finding 3,500 plastic particles per square kilometer. A study in 2010 in the same stretch of water found the concentration has shot up to 580,000 pieces per square kilometer — nearly 200 times as much.

Just a couple of years after that first article was published, in 1974, a review of the literature was already talking about the increasing problem even in remote Arctic areas like Alaska.

The field is now booming as the public and governments reckon with the consequences of the enthusiasm with which the world has embraced persistent, synthetic materials and sent them forth into the world for more than half a century.

Rhiannon Moore sifts through sand on an Alaska beach, searching for plastic that has been washing up there for decades. Photo courtesy Rhiannon Moore.

Moore is passionate about avoiding plastic in her own life; in 2017 she raised money to join the eXXpedition, an all-female sailing journey to document ocean plastic pollution.

She says the issue reached the public conscience as the consequences of microbeads in cosmetics reached the mainstream: people could actually see the pollution they were producing literally going down the drain and out into the world.

“People could say, woah, this was a really stupid idea, we’re really using plastic irresponsibly,” she says.

But the issue is bigger than microbeads or any other single product. Plastic is everywhere in our lives, from packaging to clothing, toys, tools, electronics and more. There have been grassroots efforts to avoid, limit or ban plastics in multiple industries, and zero-waste lifestyles are gaining traction. A zero-waste grocery store is set to open in Vancouver in the coming weeks.

Attention has focused lately on single-use plastics like straws, but that has its limits.

“It’s great that people are passionate about it, but this is a lot more complex than just plastic straws,” says Moore. “We are not going to solve this just by banning plastic straws.”