Seabirds along the West Coast are eating plastic at rates among the highest in the world, and all seabirds are eating much more plastic than in the past. Those are the conclusions of a new study that will be published in the upcoming Marine Pollution Bulletin.

Researchers studied a gull-like bird called the Northern Fulmar, examining a group of 67 that washed up dead on shores in British Columbia and northern Washington State. The Fulmar is related to the albatross, and forages in large ranges over the sea, eating food from the surface of the sea.

On average, the dead birds had eaten 0.385 grams of plastic—over 200 percent more than in a 1987 study, and over 800 percent more than in a 1969-1977 study. It’s now also much more likely that any particular bird will have ingested plastic; 92.5 percent of the birds in the current study had.

When birds eat plastic, it displaces space for food, and can lacerate the stomach lining. There is also the risk that contaminants absorbed by the plastic may leach out into a bird’s body. The researchers reported that some of the birds they examined had stomachs that were completely filled with plastic.

“We have known about this problem for 40 years and not only have we failed to do anything about it, it has actually gotten worse,” said Dr. George Wallace, Vice President for Oceans and Islands at American Bird Conservancy, a leading U.S. bird conservation organization. “Two things are for certain – one, this problem is not going to go away on its own – it will get worse; and two, developing ways to slow or stop the flow of plastics into the oceans will only get more expensive the longer we wait.”

Main image credit: Flickr user Bill Bouton