Albatross chick dies after eating plastic

A royal albatross chick in ICU after eating plastic. PHOTO: DUNEDIN WILDLIFE HOSPITAL
A royal albatross chick in ICU after eating plastic. PHOTO: DUNEDIN WILDLIFE HOSPITAL
A Dunedin albatross chick is dead after swallowing plastic brought to its nest by a parent.

The Department of Conservation (Doc) said the death of the 10-day old northern royal albatross (toroa) chick highlighted the issue of plastic pollution for seabirds.

Doc coastal Otago biodiversity ranger Sharyn Broni said the death was the first of its kind at the Pukekura/Taiaroa Head colony on Otago Peninsula.

However, Doc rangers had feared such a death could happen due to evidence of plastic pollution over recent years.

"The parent will have picked up the plastic while foraging at sea and then regurgitated it for the chick, which unfortunately has blocked the digestive system.

"This heartbreaking incident is a reminder it’s vital to dispose of plastic rubbish carefully.

"People can also help by picking up litter they see on beaches, near waterways, or out on the ocean.

"Every piece you pick up could save a seabird’s life."

Mrs Broni said Doc staff found plastic in almost all the toroa chick regurgitations checked last season.

bottle caps were the most common plastics seen, but a plastic syringe was among the detritus found.

In May 2021, a 9cm plastic pony toy was found in a chick’s nest. It had been regurgitated, but not swallowed.

Plastic pollution was a serious threat to seabirds such as albatrosses, which could mistake floating plastic for food.

Algae could grow on plastic making it smell like food, which could also encourage birds to eat it, she said.

"As well as being a risk for chicks, it can also kill adult birds because it sits in the stomach and they can’t digest it, causing dehydration or starvation."

Dunedin Wildlife Hospital director Lisa Argilla said vets were distressed plastic had caused the death of the chick.

Soft "but very tough" plastic was discovered during a necropsy of the young bird.

The plastic had caused an obstruction in the gastrointestinal tract "which ultimately led to starvation and organ failure", she said.

"We echo the call from Doc to please dispose of plastic carefully. Even better would be to try to limit how much plastic you use and therefore reduce waste", she said.

Te Poari a Pukekura chairwoman Nadia Wesley-Smith said every piece of plastic discarded had an effect on the "delicate balance" of the environment.

Our Seas Our Future founder Noel Jhinku said the negative impacts of plastic waste in the environment was wide reaching, particularly within coastal and oceanic environments.

A Doc spokesman said it was not clear where the plastic came from originally, but toroa fed off the East Coast.

The adult bird would have picked the plastic up at sea and then regurgitated it to the chick, he said.

A 2021 study led by the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, found single-use plastics were an underestimated but notable cause of albatross and fishery-related deaths in the southern hemisphere.