From fresh water mammals to birds and animals, all migratory species in the Asia-Pacific region are vulnerable to plastic pollution, according to a new study released on August 31 by the Secretariat of the UN’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animal (CMS)
The study for the first time focused on the impact of plastic pollution on animals that live on land and in freshwater environments in the Asia-Pacific region. The study included case studies on the Ganges and Mekong river basins, which together contribute an estimated 2,00,000 tons of plastic pollution to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean every year.
The study showed that air-breathing freshwater mammals are particularly at risk from plastic pollution. It said that entanglement in plastic waste prevented them from reaching the surface that led to their drowning. With an estimated 3,500 individuals remaining in the wild, the Ganges River Dolphin was recently rated as the second most vulnerable species at risk of entanglement and negative effects from discarded fishing gear in the Ganges, the report pointed out. In the Mekong river, the report notes that drowning due to entanglement in nets is the key threat to Irrawaddy Dolphins that are estimated to number less than 100 individuals. Both the dolphin Species are classified as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.
The report also mentioned Dugong, another marine mammal protected in the Asia-Pacific region. It also gets entangled in fishing nets and drowns. Ingestion of plastics has also contributed to Dugong deaths in India and Thailand.
The UN noted that terrestrial environments are underrepresented in plastic pollution research across the world. The UN says that evidence showed that plastic ingestion adversely affected a wide variety of animals on land. The Asian Elephant protected under CMS since the 13th conference of the Parties in 2020 has been observed scavenging on rubbish dumps in Sri Lanka and ingesting plastic in Thailand.
BIRDS AND PLASTIC POLLUTION
Birds represent over 80 per cent of the CMS-listed species in the Asia-Pacific region. The report pointed out that there was much evidence for bird interaction with plastics. Migratory birds such as Black faced Spoonbill and Osprey have been observed making nests out of plastics, using fishing lines and shipping debris, often resulting in the entanglement of their chicks. Black-footed Albatrosses and Laysan Albatrosses appear to be particularly vulnerable to plastic ingestion. They may not distinguish floating plastic items from prey when flying over the ocean. Plastic debris may then accumulate in their gut or be passed to their offspring through regurgitation.
CMS Executive Secretary Amy Fraenkel said that there are huge gaps in threats of plastic pollution on many CMS species. She added that more research is needed to better identify risks to these species and appropriate steps to be taken to address them.
DISCARDED FISHING GEAR, KITE STRINGS AMONG MAJOR THREATS
In Mekong, the report said that discarded fishing gear posed a major threat. This is especially the case for aquatic species, but also for Terrestrial and avian species that encounter these discarded materials on land. In addition to discarded fishing gear, kite strings are especially on issue for land birds and have been estimated as the second most frequent source of plastic interaction
The report pointed out that migratory species are likely among the most vulnerable to plastic pollution. It said that several of the CMS-listed species in the Asia-Pacific region are endangered. While plastic pollution is not the only threat to migratory species, it can cause harm including mortality of individuals, and poses an additional stressor that may affect the species survival.
Fraenkel noted that though the focus was for cleaning up the oceans, it is already too late in the process. “We need to focus on solutions and prevention of plastic pollution upstream,” she said.
UN Environment Programme’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Dechen Tsering said that the aim was to understand how plastic pollution problem affects rivers and to bring science closer to policy making.
- Reduce plastic waste and prevent plastic from reaching the environment
- More effective product design, waste management and recycling:
- Include reduction of plastic pollution in conservation measures for migratory species:
- More research and attention to land and freshwater impacts
- Education campaigns and programs to raise awareness among citizens
- Coordinated action and collaboration between local communities, academics, industry, governments, and NGOs to address the issue.