MORE than seven out of 10 seabirds off the coast of Scotland and beyond may have swallowed potentially harmful pellets from plastic, according to marine scientists.

Researchers from the University of the Highlands and Islands focused on 34 species of seabird found in the northeastern Atlantic region, and found 74 per cent had ingested plastic.

The report authors collated data from all known studies reporting instances of plastic ingestion and so-called “nest incorporation” in seabirds around northern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, Greenland, Svalbard, the Faroes and Iceland.

Dr Nina O’Hanlon, a seabird ecologist at the university’s Environmental Research Institute, based in Thurso, said: “Marine plastic pollution is an increasing and global environmental issue which poses a major threat to marine biodiversity.

"The production of plastic continues to rise with millions of tons entering the oceans each year. Seabirds can ingest plastic, become entangled in it, or incorporate it into their nests, causing impacts which may have negative consequences on reproduction and survival.”

RSPB senior conservation scientist Dr Alex Bond, who also worked on the report, said: “The properties which make plastic desirable are the very things which make it problematic.

“Due to its low cost, approximately half of all plastic items are produced for single-use. Plastic never breaks down, it only breaks up, into smaller fragments which remain in the environment and, as its density varies, it can be found throughout the water column, increasing the number of species which come into contact with it.

“The northeastern Atlantic Ocean is home to internationally important breeding populations of seabirds and an amazing array of other marine life. Solutions to plastic pollution in the oceans require concerted action at its source on land – 80 per cent of marine litter is thought to come from land – especially by producers and users.”

The researchers say more coordinated, comprehensive and detailed investigations are now required on plastic ingestion and nest incorporation to assess the full impact marine plastic is having on seabird populations. Fewer than half of the 69 seabird species commonly found in the northeastern Atlantic have been investigated for plastic ingestion so far.

Ms O’Hanlon added: “We actually know very little about the current prevalence of plastic ingestion and nest incorporation for many species, several, like the Long-tailed Duck and Atlantic Puffin, which are globally threatened.

“We believe it’s vital to have a multi-jurisdictional, coordinated and collaborative effort to gain a more comprehensive and current understanding of this important issue.”

The group’s research was undertaken as part of Circular Ocean, a project funded by the EU’s Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme, which aims to incentivise the reuse and recycling of marine plastic litter in remote and rural regions.