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Life in's far from fantastic

A blog post by Scottish Seabird Centre

To celebrate World Wildlife Day we are grateful to share this blog by the Scottish Seabird Centre which focuses on the dangers marine litter causes to our environment.

Picture life with a heavy rope wrapped tight around your body. Imagine how you would ache, how it would rub your skin raw, how difficult it would be to do everyday tasks. A five-minute walk might take twice as long. Even relaxing would be uncomfortable. Running for the train would be a nightmare!

This is unlikely to be a problem for most people, but it’s an increasingly common one for marine wildlife. Fishing nets, ropes, plastic bags and loops like cable ties are just some of the items which ensnare marine animals. They needn’t worry about missing a connection on their commute, but the impacts of litter on their lives could be far more serious — even fatal.

How does litter harm wildlife?

Once entangled, litter can cut into an animal’s skin, tightening and creating open wounds prone to infection. The afflicted animal might struggle to swim or fly, preventing it from feeding properly. Trapped beneath the waves, it might starve or drown.

These plastic objects will outlive any animal they impact, so one plastic loop or net could claim numerous victims during its indefinite lifespan in the ocean… or indeed on land. Marine litter that has been washed up on beaches has been known to trap birds, foxes, red deer, and even pet cats and dogs.

These are impacts that anyone can see whether it’s a harbour seal with a noose of fishing line or a limping gull with twine knotting its legs. Yet the impacts of the things we throw away are not always obvious.

Why do animals eat litter? You’ve probably heard about turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish, but it’s not only turtles that struggle to tell the difference between food and plastic. Seals will munch on bottles and fishing lines. Tiny plastic pellets called “nurdles” are confused with fish eggs and are eaten by birds, crustaceans and adult fish. Some plastic looks like seaweed. Others are silvery and flash in the sun like fish scales. Algae can encrust litter, making it smell edible.

Once in an animal’s stomach, plastic can cause internal injuries. Sometimes it gets stuck and builds up until the animal feels stuffed and stops eating. Seabird chicks — which are fed regurgitated food by their parents — have no option but to eat the plastic their parents pass on to them.

Extremely small particles are absorbed into the bloodstream and can build up in organs and tissues. This is an issue for human too, with microplastics found in everyday food and drink.

Marine pollution is huge and daunting, yet there are lots of small things we can all do to help wildlife. If you’re out for a walk along the coast — or even your local riverbank — picking up a piece of litter could save something’s life.

Check out the Scottish Seabird Centre’s events page for regular beach cleans around East Lothian or get in touch to collect some beach clean kit to use whenever you like! We’re excited to contribute to Keep Scotland Beautiful’s Spring Clean campaign, which will hopefully see thousands of volunteers take to their local areas with litter pickers between March and April.

Litter is likely to linger for a long time until it’s removed, so let’s do something about it together.

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