Southern California environment news and trends

Bad diet: Pacific birds eating increasing amount of plastic

It’s a sad fact that many bird species have a propensity for eating plastic. Given the amount of trash strewn throughout the world’s oceans, there’s no shortage of the stuff for animals to choke down. As reported by Treehugger, a new study by a team of American and Canadian scientists has found that seabirds of the North Pacific are consuming alarming amounts of plastic that rank among the highest rates in the world.

“The results are troubling,” said Stephanie Avery-Gomm, an author of the study who along with five other scientists analyzed 67 dead seabirds (known as Northern Fulmars) found on shores from Long Beach all the way up to British Columbia and Vancouver Island. “The large amount of plastic ingested by fulmars from the eastern North Pacific are approaching the high levels which have been documented previously in the historically polluted North Sea, where fulmars have been used as an indicator species of ocean health for decades… It is safe to say, based on earlier studies from the North Pacific, plastic ingestion in Northern Fulmars, and therefore plastic pollution, has increased in the North Pacific over the past forty years.”

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Radioactive tuna from Japan reach California

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AFP/Getty Images

Bluefin tuna.

With plastic and debris from last year’s tsunami in Japan already causing trouble on American shores, there’s a new cause of domestic concern from that devastating event. Researchers have found “low levels” of radiation in bluefin tuna along the California coast, raising fears that the fish brought the radiation — the result of the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant — across the Pacific Ocean quicker than water or even wind.

As reported by Reuters, small amounts of cesium-137 and cesium-134 were found in 15 tuna caught in the vicinity of San Diego last August, four months after the disaster in Japan and far outpacing ocean and air debris.

Researchers conducting the study claim that while the tuna were measured to contain five times the amount of cesium-137 than normal, the radiation is not enough to harm people if eaten, and are “far less” than general Japanese safety levels.

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Pacific Ocean’s ecology affected by floating debris

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Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images

A team of researchers working off the coast of California has determined that the amount of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean has increased at least one hundred fold over the past 40 years.

The scientists, who are from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, have also discovered that this growing mass of trash (known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”) has begun altering the ecology. As reported by CBS News, the water-skimming marine insects known as Halobates sericeus lay eggs on the water’s surface, usually organic matter like seabird feathers and shells. With the preponderance of tiny bits of plastic, however, the insects have found plentiful new real estate to spread their eggs.

"We thought there might be fewer Halobates if there's more plastic - that there might be some sort of toxic effect. But, actually, we found the opposite. In the areas that had the most plastic, we found the most Halobates,” said Scripps researcher Miriam Goldstein to BBC News. "So, they're obviously congregating around this plastic, laying their eggs on it, and hatching out from it. For Halobates, all this plastic has worked out well for them."

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Japanese tsunami debris expected to reach California shores

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University of Hawaii/NOAA

Millions of tons of debris from the tsunami in Japan are washing toward the western U.S. and could make landfall in spring, 2013.

The catastrophic 9.0 tsunami that rocked the coast of Japan last March was more than just devastating. Destroying whole villages and reducing the Miyagi Prefecture down to little more than a pile of rubble, it also swept everything in its path – buildings, cars, boats, furniture and more – out to sea. All of which is heading directly for the shores of the western United States, including Hawaii, Washington and of course, California.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Marine Debris Program, all of that stuff (pretty much anything that floats) started showing up last September when fishing buoys from the disaster washed up here in California. The floating detritus, once moving in huge debris fields, has broken down into millions of smaller pieces headed right in our direction.

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