Skip navigation

Press Release - Human waste threatens global biodiversity

Issue date: 22 Apr 2002
Number: 06/2002

22 April 2002 PR Number 6/2002 Discarded human debris is encouraging colonization of exotic marine animals in the world's oceans and threatening global biodiversity, particularly in the Southern Ocean. The findings, reported in this week's NATURE, are based on a 10-year study of human litter (mostly plastic) washed ashore on 30 remote islands around the globe, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) found that man-made rubbish in the seas, especially plastics, has almost doubled the spread of alien species in the subtropics and more than tripled it at high latitudes. Since the creation of plastics over 50 years ago, floating litter has provided mobile homes for marine organisms such as bryozoans, barnacles, polychaete worms, hydroids and molluscs, increasing opportunity for dispersal to new areas. Many seem to prefer plastics to natural matter such as volcanic rock, pumice and wood. Barnes and colleagues are investigating the potential impact on Antarctica's native marine animal life. The predicted 2?C temperature increase in the Southern Ocean over the next 100 years will weaken Antarctica's natural barrier, which currently freezes out alien species. The first warning signs will be seen at the most northerly Antarctic islands. BAS marine biologist David Barnes says, "If freezing seawater temperature is the main barrier to alien organism invasion of Antarctica, polar warming could lessen this constraint. Some native Antarctic marine species appear to be very sensitive to even a small temperature increase. If alien species enter the region they have the capacity to drastically and irrevocably change these ecosystems." David Barnes would like to hear from anyone who would be able to conduct simple shore debris surveys, particularly from the following islands; Andamans, Ille Amsterdam, Bermuda, Chagos, Clipperton, Cocos/Christmas, Gilbert, Midway, Society, Socotra, Trinidade and Wake. Colonization on discarded plastic - Click to enlarge
Signy Island - Click to enlarge
-ENDS- Issued by the British Antarctic Survey Press Office. Press enquiries to the British Antarctic Survey Press Office: Linda Capper: British Antarctic Survey Press Office - Work: 01223 221448, Mobile: 07714 2337412 Athena Dinar: British Antarctic Survey Press Office - Work: 01223 221414, Mobile: 07740 822229 For more information contact: Dave Barnes - Telephone: 01223 221613 (work); email: dkab@bas.ac.uk NOTES TO EDITORS Invasion by marine life on plastic debris by David Barnes is published in a Brief Communication this week in Nature. Half of this research was conducted at University College, Cork (Ireland). Picture Editors: Photographs and video footage of Signy Island as well as plastic debris covered with marine organisms are available from the BAS Press Office. The effects of changes in temperature in the Southern ocean is part of the BAS core science programme 'Life at the Edge', which examines Antarctic ecosystems with the aim of understanding how species cope with environmental change. Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) are studying the impact this may have on Antarctica, where between 60-95% of the known marine animal life is native to that region. There is a world-wide conservation effort to remove introduced species from environmentally sensitive areas. The Antarctic Treaty, Environmental Protocol specifically requires the removal of non-native species (except humans) from the continent. The Hadley Centre Climate Models and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predict a 2?C temperature increase in the Southern Ocean over the next 100 years. British Antarctic Survey is responsible for most of the UK's research in Antarctica. It is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council.