Canadian researchers have known for years that High Arctic seabirds ingest plastic garbage, but one scientist says her recent work suggests a steady increase in the amount of plastic showing up in the birds' guts.

“Eighty-seven per cent of our birds in Arctic Canada have ingested plastics of some sort. That’s similar to areas across the North Atlantic," says Jennifer Provencher, a PhD research student at Carleton University in Ottawa. 

"The Arctic is still thought of as a bit cleaner, a bit less polluted, but we’re still seeing high levels.”

Provencher says she has found both user plastics and industrial plastics from further away than local communities.

“The fact that we're finding industrial plastics in Arctic birds confirms that what you dump out your front door may not stay at your front door."  

High Arctic seabird research

A researcher collecting samples on a cliff where hundreds of Murre have gathered. (Courtesy Jennifer Provencher)

Scientists have studied Nunavut’s High Arctic seabird colonies since the 1950s, but Provencher says researchers only stumbled upon the plastic about 10 years ago while looking for parasites and contaminants.

“No one was looking for plastic but we found plastic,” Provencher says.

Now, she says, researchers track each bird they handle looking for plastic.

“We’ve gone from accidental science to very purposeful science to try to track changes.”

But Provencher notes that the researchers she's aware of are not funded to investigate plastics specifically. It’s work they do on the side, while focusing on their core research.

Plastics range by species

The likelihood of birds ingesting plastics ranges by species, from just one per cent in the common eider to nearly 90 per cent in the northern fulmar. The Arctic tern doesn't seem to ingest any plastic.

So far, the amount of plastic in the birds is serving as an indicator of widespread plastic pollution, rather than as an immediate threat to the birds. 

But Provencher says that as sea ice declines, more surface currents will be able to bring all kinds of things into previously remote parts of the North and the High Arctic. That could mean plastic levels rising similar to levels in other parts of the world, such as the North Sea or Hawaii, where plastic is known to actually injure or even kill birds, or hinder egg growth.  

“We’re not there yet in the Arctic, but that is happening elsewhere in the world and if plastic ingestion increases, it’s something that could happen in the North.”

Provencher would also like to learn whether birds are being affected by the chemicals in the plastics they ingest.