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Bird deaths offer stark reminder of plastic pollution’s impact on nature

The impact on nature of pollution in the marine environment was brought starkly to the fore over the past week in Gibraltar waters, where three birds died after swallowing plastic or becoming entangled in tape, netting and rope.

Both birds were Northern Gannets and one was found dead in the sea, while the other was found alive but could not be saves despite the best efforts the best efforts of the Department of the Environment’s Environmental Protection and Research Unit, the rehabilitation unit of the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society (GONHS) and of the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic (GVC).

In another similar incident, a Purple Sandpiper – a rare visitor to Gibraltar – was rescued after it became entangled in netting but later died.

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The deaths prompted the Department of the Environment and Climate Change to again urge the community to heed calls for stem the use of plastic and recycle everything that is used.

The department is finalising legislation on plastics and is also engaging with the construction industry to reduce single use plastic in that sector.

“Having watched these magnificent birds around our shores ever since I was a child, and having had the privilege of seeing them in two nesting colonies in the Channel Islands, the tragic death of this Gannet saddens me greatly,” Dr John Cortes, the Minister for the Environment, said.

“And it angers me to know that it has died due to the direct effect of my own species.”

“We are responsible for so much harm to our wildlife. As a community we must reduce the use of plastic and recycle what we use.”

“We know what we have to do. Government will be publishing laws about this soon and, together with NGOs will continue to campaign.”

“But we don’t need laws to know what we have to do.”

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A post-mortem carried out by Dr Mark Pizarro, the veterinarian at the Gibraltar Veterinary Clinic, found that the Gannet that died after the rescue attempt had plastic lodged in its gut, preventing the ingestion of fish and likely resulting in its death.

Northern Gannets nest on coastal cliffs in the British Isles and elsewhere in Northern Europe and migrate south for the winter, many spending the colder season in the Mediterranean.

At this time they are common around Gibraltar’s shores and can be seen diving into the sea from considerable height in search of fish.

The plastic found inside the Gannet was in the form of a single wrapper of Marie biscuits, which probably shimmered in the water, making the Gannet think it was a fish.

It cannot be determined where this adult bird ingested the plastic.

It could have been anywhere between its nesting sites in the north and its winter quarters.

But the message is the same wherever it happened: Plastic in the environment will cause death.

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“This latest incident is another example of the very damaging and often lethal effect that plastic pollution has on wildlife,” Dr Keith Bensusan of GONHS said.

“It follows on from other examples of birds that have been injured or killed by discarded plastic around Gibraltar’s shores in the last few months.”

“Over 80% of the world’s seabirds have ingested plastic. It is estimated that before the middle of the century, virtually all seabirds will carry some plastic inside them.”

“This is another terrible environmental legacy for humans to leave. We can do something about it by using less plastic and recycling more, and by not littering.”

“If you care about the environment, you should make every effort to do this.”

Janet Howitt, of the Environmental Safety Group, said the latest incidents of bird deaths were “terrible sad but not a surprise”.

The group said the dangers of litter on the environment had been the catalyst for its annual Clean Up Campaign, which it has organised since 2005.

The campaign aims to both highlight and reduce the threat of litter locally.

“Global statistics confirm the ever growing and devastating threat posed by plastics in all forms, on our marine world and on seabirds, indeed right down to the food chain and we all need to do more, and quickly,” Ms Howitt said.

“We can all do more to help reverse the damaging plastic war on nature. Reducing waste and improving legislation on eliminating all forms of single use plastics are targets we have to make a priority."

Lewis Stagnetto, the founder of The Nautilus Project who has campaigned to reduce the use of plastic for several years, also expressed sadness about the impact of pollution on wildlife in Gibraltar waters.

“Both deaths are plastic related, ingestion and entanglement respectively, and it is likely that more occurrences will follow throughout the remainder of the year,” he said.

“This is why we need to reduce single use plastic urgently.”

“As part of the global food web it is inevitable that the plastic we are discarding as waste, ends up within the food chain and ultimately in us.”

“In June, a paper published in the Journal of Maturitas by Waring et al (2018), highlights various pathways for plastic nanoparticles entering humans.”

“The Nautilus Project has been calling for the reduction in single use plastic since October 2016, almost three years now.”

“We welcome the amazing response from the community and businesses but especially from our children.”

“The upcoming generations are leading the way on this issue as they seem to understand what is at stake very well.”

“It is inherent we all heed this call and continue to push for the required changes in our lives to reduce single use plastic and the damage it is doing to our planet and to us.”

“In the words of Wendell Berry ‘a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.’”