Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The price of convenience

Warning; this post may give you bad dreams. Read it anyway; it's important.

Every so often, we come across an unpleasant sight on our beaches. A dead seabird, usually a gull. We always take photos, but at home, I delete them; they are too sad to share. I changed my mind; here is a gull we found a couple of days ago.

Found just above the high tide line. No visible injury.

Recently dead; the eye is still bright, the surrounding flesh, pink.

I have seen a few live gulls with broken wings or injured feet, but the ones we find dead have uniformly seemed uninjured. What killed them?

The most likely culprits are the plastic bags and/or other plastic debris left on the beaches by human beach visitors. As I walk on the beach, we collect any bags we see, and take them to the nearest - accusingly near! - trash can. This last time, I filled a grocery bag (also found on the sand) with other bags, plastic cups, and even a broken toothbrush.

Gulls are particularly vulnerable to this abandoned trash. When I was a kid, I watched a gull on our beach down a huge pile of fish guts. The mass was all connected, and the gull had to struggle and strain to get it all down. I was astounded when he succeeded. Even an entire grocery bag is more maneuverable and smaller than that; the sheer difficulty of swallowing it would not be a deterrent. Lying in water, half-buried in sand, the bags look surprisingly like bits of fish skin, or jellyfish. They even smell like food, as often as not.

All this is well known; entering "Gulls plastic bag die" into Google brought up over 73,000 sites. One of the first was this; "Gulls can't read ...", incorporating this video.

(One of the comments on YouTube asks why the photographer didn't stop this. The answer is in the post: "He was in an elevated postion and was unable to go the herring gull's resuce - but the reality of what was unfolding before his eyes meant he kept his camera on.")

Researchers estimate that around 95% of all sea birds have eaten plastic litter. (Here, here, and here.) Worse still, is the multiplying lethality of these bags; after a killed gull rots away, the plastic, still intact, is released into the sea to lay in wait for another luckless bird or other animal (a turtle, a whale, etc.) And again, and again. The bag will last for centuries. (Even a so-called "bio-degradable" bag will remain intact for a long, long time. And once it has broken down, the plastic is still there, just in tiny pieces. It can still kill; it just won't choke a gull.)

Thanks for watching and "listening". You know what to do.


  1. I know what you mean about trash cans being so unbelievably close -- it is incomprehensible to me why someone wouldn't walk a few steps to dispose of their trash! Plastic bags are a problem. I didn't realize that they would ingest a bag. Thanks for the post/info.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I knew about turtles, but not about gulls.

    Those bags escape from the trash and blow around even if they make it that far. Recycling is better. Cloth is the best. I carry a gazillion cloth bags in my car, so I always have one.

    I will spread the word about your post.

  3. When I spent a couple of days at the beach last month, I carried with me a garbage bag which I filled 3 times with debris (plastic bags, pieces of styrofoam, garbage) in JUST 3 walks along a very short section of beach.

    I watched part of the video, but couldn't finish. I was feeling rather ill. And mad. More than mad - incensed.

    Thank you for posting this. I too wondered about some of the birds I found dead on the beach with no obvious injuries. Now I know.

  4. So sad and sickening. People can be so lazy with their garbage and i always call them on it when i see them leaving their trash around even though they way they retort is scary at times. About all we can do is clean up after the sob's and hope they get educated. I'd love to see them being given a stiff fine and made to clean up on a few beaches.

  5. why don't they teach more of this at school level when there's a chance of instilling the good habit of not leaving trash lying around.

  6. Thanks for the comments, y'all!

    Lorraina, "People can be so lazy ... all we can do is clean up after the sob's and hope they get educated. I'd love to see them being given a stiff fine and made to clean up on a few beaches."

    Hmmm... You sound like me, walking down the beach mumbling about lazy bums ... :)

    I guess we'll just keep on picking up after them.


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