|Stomach contents of dead albatross on Midway Attoll. Pic Chris Jordan|
All three albatross were found dead in 2015. A young Black-browed Albatross (listed internationally as Endangered) was found during a pelagic seabirding trip off Southport. The curling ribbon from a helium ribbon was found floating from the bird's mouth - a clear indication that the attached balloon or balloon remnants had either choked the bird or blocked its gastro-intestinal tract, causing it to starve.
|Dead albatross found off Southport. Pic Tod Burrows|
|Light-mantled Albatross - balloon knot blocking gastro-intestinal tract|
|Balloon knot after extraction from Light-mantled Albatross gastro-intestinal tract|
|Balloon remnants removed from Grey-headed Albatross gut|
|Balloon remnant found in Grey-headed Albatross|
Sunnybank Plaza balloon showing same branding as a balloon in an albatross victim, above, and below, the event being promoted.
You don't need to be Einstein to work out that hundreds and possibly thousands of helium balloons have found their way into the atmosphere from this single source twice a year. The release of helium balloons is used extensively for commercial promotional events, weddings, funerals and all manner of things. When floating balloons reach about 10,000m, they explode and remnants fall to ground or water.
While some manufacturers claim balloons are bio-degradable, they can in fact persist for many months in the environment because of the addition of chemicals and dyes in balloon manufacture. Apart from the danger of balloon remnants blocking gastro-intestinal tracts, the string attached to a balloon can strangle or entrap animals.
|Stomach contents of a Midway Attoll albatross - pic Chris Jordan|
A series of photographs by Chris Jordan of plastic rubbish found in the guts of dead seabirds at Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific dramatically demonstrates the extent of the problem. A 2013 study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin of nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on Heron Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef - a relatively pristine site - showed 21% of chicks were fed plastic rubbish, with each chick consuming more than 3 pieces of plastic.
The problem is going to get worse, much worse. A 2015 study in the journal Science reported that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic rubbish enters the sea every year from a mind-boggling 275 million metric tons of plastic waste produced annually. By 2025, the amount of plastic rubbish could reach 155 metric tons annually unless waste management techniques improve.
According to a 2015 report by the National Academy of Science in the U.S., concentrations of plastic pollution in the ocean have reached 580,000 pieces per square kilometre. Analysis of studies reported in the literature between 1962 and 2012 revealed that 29% of individual seabirds had plastic in their gut.
Back to the local helium balloons. NSW is the only Australian state or territory to impose controls on their use, prohibiting the release of 20 or more balloons at a time. The Sunshine Coast Council in Queensland is the only local authority in the country to ban the release of balloons into the atmosphere, with the city of Ipswich considering a similar move.
The albatross deaths highlight the deficiencies of these controls. Seabirds don't recognise local authority boundaries. Balloons released in Brisbane killed albatross found on Fraser Island. Limits on numbers of balloons released simultaneously won't account for thousands being given away individually at commercial events, as in the case of Sunnybank Plaza.
|Wandering Albatross, this one alive, for the moment|
A small glimmer of hope. When I contacted Sunnybank Plaza, their marketing manager, Liza Smith, who oversees the food festival event, was horrified at news of the seabird deaths. Ms Smith says that coincidentally, Sunnybank Plaza had decided in the past week not so supply helium balloons at future events. "There is an awareness that this is not a great thing to be doing," Liza said.
Amen to that. A petition for a nation-wide ban on helium balloons can be found here.
Together, these results suggest that plastic debris emits the scent of a marine infochemical, creating an olfactory trap for susceptible marine wildlife. We demonstrate experimentally that marine-seasoned microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide (DMS) signature that is also a keystone odorant for natural trophic interactions. We further demonstrate a positive relationship between DMS responsiveness and plastic ingestion frequency using procellariiform seabirds
To investigate what attracts birds to debris, the scientists put beads made from the three most common types of plastic - high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and polypropylene - into the ocean at Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay, off the California coast. Three weeks later, the beads were collected and the smell they gave off was analysed -The plastic was found to give off a sulfur compound, dimethyl sulfide (DMS), linked to the algae which coated the floating plastic. The same team had previously shown that DMS is the chemical cue that triggers certain seabirds to forage for krill - or as the scientists put it “the birds’ version of a dinner bell”