Wrangell’s Stikine River Birding Festival celebrates the return of migratory birds to the river flats each spring. The festival brought bird enthusiasts and experts to town last week for birdwatching, lectures and art contests. One of the festival’s featured speakers was Veronica Padula, who presented her research on how marine debris is affecting sea birds.
Veronica Padula is a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and she is trying to determine how plastic debris in the ocean affects sea birds in the western Aleutian Islands. She said her project began because sea bird populations there started declining, and no one knew why.
“So there are a couple of researchers out there asking different questions, and my question is related to whether or not marine debris is impacting those populations,” Padula said.
Padula displayed photos of animals that were visibly impacted by marine debris: a seal with a fishing net stuck around its neck, a bird wrapped in fishing line and a dead albatross with a stomach full of plastic objects.
But Padula’s research is much more subtle.
“Are the chemicals from the marine debris getting into these birds’ tissues? Because what we know from human research is that those chemicals are endocrine disrupters,” Padula said. “So they will mess with hormones and development. Is that playing a role in their decline?”
The chemicals that Padula looks for in sea birds are called phthalates. They are a family of chemicals used to make plastic more flexible, and they can leach into the muscle and liver tissues of birds.
Padula found those chemicals in all of the birds she collected in the west Aleutians. But only some birds had visible pieces of plastic in their stomach.
Padula said these are still preliminary results from a small sample size, but it means all of those sea birds were exposed to plastic marine debris at some point in their lives. And she found this is in a place where very few people live.
Padula also found phthalates in sea bird embryos, which means adult birds are passing small concentrations of those chemicals to their chicks.
She hopes a long-term field study will help determine what that means for sea bird populations.
“There are populations that we can have access to to monitor the chicks, monitor fledgling success, and incorporate that with taking feather and blood samples from them, looking at contaminant levels in those tissues.”
Padula said the health of sea birds can also indicate the health of the entire ecosystem.
“Because they’re at the top of the food chain in that particular instance, they are being impacted by what’s happening below them in the rest of the ecosystem. And so it can give us this broader picture overall,” Padula said.
More researchers are turning their attention to phthalates. In humans, they are associated with infertility, breast cancer and reduced brain function in babies.
Another group of researchers is looking for phthalates in Pacific salmon.
Padula says the best thing that people can do to minimize their impact is to use as little plastic as possible.
“And that’s a hard thing because there’s plastic everywhere. And our lives and our culture is just sort of dependent on plastic. What I really try and emphasize, especially when I walk into classrooms, is to start thinking about these choices you make in your everyday life.”
Those can include not using plastic utensils and making more food from scratch to avoid plastic packaging.
“I try my best to convey how passionate I feel about it to others, and I hope that people sort of pick up on that. And even if it’s just one person saying, ‘I’m not going to use plastic bottles anymore, I will get a reusable water bottle,’ cool. I’ve done my job.”
Padula also presented her research in Wrangell classrooms and led a marine debris cleanup in town.