Erica Donnelly-Greenan has seen some disturbing items in the stomachs of remote seabirds: bottle caps and even toy army men in the bellies of albatross, for example. The risks of plastic pollution aren’t confined to ingestion, either. Even airborne birds become the bycatch of abandoned fishing lines. But Donnelly-Greenan, a marine biologist at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in California, is assembling public data to do something about it.
Last month, Donnelly-Greenan published a study with her colleagues that analyzed beach surveys done by trained volunteers—so-called citizen scientists—in six coastal counties. Collectively, the surveyors observed 65,604 marine animal carcasses on California beaches in the past 20 years. Of these, 357 were cases of seabird entanglements. While disturbing, this information is necessary to assess and ultimately offer solutions to the problem of plastics.
“We need more data and understanding to get a fuller picture of how plastic impacts not only individuals but populations over time,” Donnelly-Greenan says. Bird researchers have long relied on the public to help gather these important observations. By deputizing citizen scientists to gather robust data, researchers can gain greater insights about the natural world.
When a coalition of state and research institutions launched the BeachCOMBERS (Coastal Ocean Mammal and Bird Education and Research) survey in 1997, they never intended for it to reveal the impacts of plastic debris. It was meant to assess the health of sanctuaries in the Monterey Bay area. Since it began, though, more than 200 volunteer citizen scientists have surveyed California beaches every month, and the resulting dataset offered Donnelly-Greenan and her colleagues valuable insights into the impacts of plastics. They learned, for example, that five nearshore seabird species were hardest hit: the common murre, Brandt’s cormorant, western gull, sooty shearwater, and brown pelican.
Scientists have yet to determine whether ingestion, entanglement, or toxic chemicals leaching from plastics incorporated into nests are having a significant negative impact on specific populations. To assess such consequences, researchers are tapping into long-term wildlife surveys to unravel plastic prevalence—and creating new reporting mechanisms.
Despite a rich tradition of bird-related citizen science and the public’s growing awareness of plastic pollution, data on how the two interact is still thin, says Neil James of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Thurso, Scotland. He coordinates Circular Ocean, an E.U.-funded project to assess the impact of environmental contamination and develop solutions for marine plastic waste.
James and his colleague Nina O’Hanlon published a study in 2019 that examined 7,280 Northern Gannet nests across the U.K., Norway, Iceland, Canada, Ireland, and the Faroe Islands, and found that 46 percent had incorporated debris such as fishing lines or plastic bottle bits. But, he says, so much more data is needed to understand the impacts of plastic pollution. “For over half of the species in the northeast Atlantic Ocean, we have no idea if they are ingesting plastic or incorporating it into their nests or not,” James says.
The first global review of non-natural materials in bird nests looked at all 25 scientific articles that exist on the subject. Debris was found in nearly a third of the nests. The review documented a total of 10,790 nests, which sounds impressive, but covered only 51 populations of 24 bird species. An estimated 18,000 bird species are in the world.
With more quantitative, geo-referenced data, O’Hanlon says, it will be possible to tackle pressing research priorities, including how widespread plastic pollution is; which locations are hardest hit; which species are most affected; and what types of debris cause the most problems.
To this end, James and his university colleagues launched the BirdsandDebris.com website this past summer to encourage the public to contribute pictures and reports of wildlife and plastic sightings. The site aims to collect and catalog images and reports of birds interacting with plastic debris from all over the world.
So far, 229 reports have been submitted by 143 citizen scientists in 34 countries. Among these are an immature Mediterranean gull with legs entangled in plastic; a brown booby in American Samoa with a flip-flop in its nest; and a black collared starling carrying a zip-top bag in China. With funding to support the website for at least 10 years, the creators aim to take citizen science to the next level to learn strategies to help protect birds from plastic pollution.
“It’s time to up our game on data collection,” says Jennifer Provencher, wildlife health unit head at Environment and Climate Change Canada, the government agency responsible for environmental policies. Provencher has studied plastics for 13 years, and she’s helping to standardize reporting protocols to create agreed-upon definitions of plastic types, such as microfibers or nets.
“We need to know which species are most vulnerable relative to their conservation status,” Provencher says, to know what kind of policy protections are most needed. “If we find that fishing nets or shopping bags are the biggest problem in a specific region, it will help us home in on solutions,” she says.
To this end, Provencher is developing a database that will include all wildlife entanglements—from whales and seals to turtles and birds. “We have volunteers out on beaches, all seeing wildlife entangled in plastic, but they don’t have anywhere to collect or align the data,” she says.
That’s at least one reason that platforms for citizen scientists to share their findings are proliferating. INaturalist has a Nature and Plastic portal to document the buckets, bottles, and bags that clutter marine and terrestrial ecosystems. The non-profit Adventure Scientists partners scientists with outdoor enthusiasts to do water sampling; between 2013 and 2017, more than 1,000 volunteers collected 2,677 water samples around the world. Of these, 89% of marine samples and 51% of freshwater samples contained microplastic pollution.
While O’Hanlon and James will mine the Birds and Debris database for patterns of concern, they are keen to partner with international collaborators to harness the power of public involvement.
“Citizen science is incredibly valuable and useful,” Donnelly-Greenan says. By partnering with the public, scientists can collect rigorous, publishable scientific data that would be cost-prohibitive for researchers alone to collect.
Provencher, too, says having so many platforms has scientific value: “When you pull all of these data together in a common frame, then you can answer some pretty big questions you simply can’t otherwise.”
Reporting for this story has been supported by a travel award from the European Geosciences Union.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about biodiversity, climate change, and food security. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Popular Science, bioGraphic, The Washington Post, Nature, and many others.