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Puffins Eating Plastic? Pellets Threaten the Isle of May

Apr 01, 2015 02:00 PM EDT

The iconic puffin, a bird being considered as one of 10 candidates to be the UK's national bird, may be in trouble. Experts are finding a disturbing amount of plastic in the bellies of puffins around the Isle of May, and they say this could spell for severe ecological consequences.

The Isle of May, also called the "Jewel of the Forth," is located in the north of the outer Firth of Forth, five miles off the coast of mainland Scotland. A protected natural environment, the Jewel is home to over 250,000 seabirds, including the largest puffin colony on the UK's east coast.

With no landing fee, boaters can even roll right up to the island, which is a bit more than a mile long (1.8 km) and not even a third of a mile wide. The region even just became open to the public again this spring, with the first tourists of the season peeking at puffins on April 1st.

However, these peculiar seabirds may not feel up to having visitors these days.

"We regularly collect puffins found dead on the island to help us monitor the health of the population," Mark Newell from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology recently explained to Fauna and Flora International (FFI), a biodiversity conservation group.

"As part of this research we look at what they have been eating," he said. "At first we didn't know what the strange pieces of plastic were, but we found them in a number of the puffins' stomachs."

Things became clearer after folks with The Great Nurdle Hunt (GNH) reached out to the center. The puffins had only just arrived at the island, slowly settling in as early as mid-March after a hard migration from the North Sea or even various wintering grounds that spot the Atlantic Ocean. But now that they were back, nurdle hunters wanted to know if ecologists had noticed anything unusual. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Barbara Agnew via FFI)

Nurdles are tiny plastic beads not unlike the harmful plastic microbeads that have recently been making headlines. Slightly wider than your average pea, these beads are usually melted down to create nearly all of the plastic products we use. However, where nurdles are made is not necessarily where they finally end up. Often, this raw plastic material is shipped overseas, and mistakes can happen. Ships lose cargo and have spillage, and sometimes millions, if not billions of the pellets find their way into the world's oceans.

That's what the GNH, a community-based movement in Scotland, is all about. Tracing this unusual industrial pollution and keeping it out of important ecological areas is their top priority.

And yet, nurdles were exactly what were in the bellies of the Isle of May's puffins.

"To hear of puffins ingesting nurdles in the Firth of Forth is very alarming news," added Tom Brock, the Chief Executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre. "Not only can nurdles get trapped in their stomach but the toxic chemicals on the surface of the plastic may have terrible repercussions. It is vital that we all do what we can to resolve this issue."

So what can be done? GNH members, alongside locals around the Forth, are already scouring the coast, sweeping up what nurdles they find. However, the tiny and resilient nature of this pollutant allows it to come in and out with the tide, making the hunt a hard one.

Proactive action then, says GNH project leader Cathy Sexton, may be the best solution.

"We have contacted the plastics companies around the Forth and - using the public sightings - have shown them the impact nurdles are having on the local environment," she happily announced through the FFI, who is supporting the cause.

"I am pleased to say that as a result we are now in discussion with a number of those companies who are keen to help keep nurdles out of the Forth," Sexton said.

How exactly they will go about achieving this remains unclear, but it will hopefully mean no more plastic meals for the unusual and iconic characters on Scotland's jewel of an island.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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