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Watching seabirds aids understanding of ocean pollution

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Eiders in the Arctic.

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Eiders in the Arctic.

A Winnipeg student is bird-watching — specifically, seabird watching — to better understand the pollution problem in oceans.

Kyle Elliott, working on his PhD in biology at the University of Manitoba, and his father John, who works at Environment Canada in Vancouver, put out a summary paper in the May 3 edition of Science magazine, reviewing the impact of ocean contaminates on the seabird population. Elliott’s research is based mostly out of northern Manitoba, along the coast of Hudson Bay, where he monitors the migration patterns of gulls, terns, pelicans and puffins.

"Seabirds are a very effective platform for learning about marine pollution for a number of reasons," Kyle said. "Ship time is very expensive, which is what we try to do with ice-breakers in Hudson Bay, and can cost millions of dollars. With a seabird colony, you can let them do all the work and collect the samples (eggs, feathers, tissues) you need.

"As the birds are continuously exposed to toxins, we start to see patterns form."

Those "bioaccumulative toxins" are of great interest because of the lasting impact they have on the health of birds. It takes only a life-cycle to see the effects of pollutants in eggs, and gives researchers a better understanding of what the long-term repercussions can be. Seabirds make the perfect guinea pigs in the research, Elliott points out, as feathers, blood and oil samples can be collected without fatally harming the birds.

"You can collect a feather which would give you a one-time scale, and you can look at feathers that were molted at different stages — one during the wintering grounds, another taken during the breeding grounds," he said.

Plastic products continue to be the biggest issue for the oceans, and scientists estimate that over 90 per cent of materials floating in the oceans are plastic. While Elliott figures most of the plastic found in birds along the shoreline of Hudson Bay is brought up from the Atlantic Ocean wintering grounds, he maintains the issue is a global one.

"Being up in Hudson Bay, a place you would think is very, very remote, some of the beaches are littered with plastic," Elliott offered. "You look into the stomachs of the birds, and they’re filled with plastic."

Plastics can actually serve as a vehicle for other pollutants in the ocean; oil and other industrial by-products floating on the ocean surface will actually latch onto plastic debris, doubling up on a contaminant’s dosage if ingested by sea life.

Elliott adds in the review that new technologies like miniature GPS recorders can extend seabird-pollution research even further, tracking birds into specific locations where contamination levels are high.

adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

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