Oct. 9 (UPI) -- As much as 10 times more plastic pollution is making its way to the shores of South Atlantic islands than was 10 years ago, according to a new survey by researchers at the British Antarctic Survey.
Scientists surveyed plastic pollution levels along the coasts of several British Overseas Territories. The research team was dismayed to find a variety of biologically-rich ecosystems tainted by plastics.
On some remote beaches, scientists discovered levels of plastic pollution comparable to amounts found on industrialized North Atlantic coasts.
The survey -- the results of which were published this week in the journal Current Biology -- comprised four trips aboard the British Antarctic Survey's research vessel RRS James Clark Ross. During the trips, scientists surveyed pollution levels across different levels of the water column, as well as on seabeds and beaches.
Previous studies suggest plastic debris can be distributed throughout the water column, making its way into deep sea ecosystems.
"Three decades ago these islands, which are some of the most remote on the planet, were near-pristine," BAS researcher David Barnes said in a news release. "Plastic waste has increased a hundred-fold in that time, it is now so common it reaches the seabed. We found it in plankton, throughout the food chain and up to top predators such as seabirds."
On the shores of East Falkland and St. Helena, scientists found nearly 1,000 pieces of plastic per foot of coastline.
During their survey, scientists documented 2,000 animal specimens, comprising 26 species, living among the pollution. Animals can become entangled in plastic. They can also be starved or poisoned by ingestion. Many species mistake plastic particles for food.
"These islands and the ocean around them are sentinels of our planet's health. It is heart-breaking watching albatrosses trying to eat plastic thousands of miles from anywhere," said Andy Schofield, biologists with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "This is a very big wake up call. Inaction threatens not just endangered birds and whale sharks, but the ecosystems many islanders rely on for food supply and health."