Rangers caring for a protected bird colony located on a remote island off the UK's Cornish coast found themselves stumped when they came across thousands of colored rubber bands despite the fact that no humans inhabit the area.
The culprit? Seabirds. According to the National Trust, a UK-based charity for environmental and heritage conservation in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the rubber bands are deposited on Muillon Island by gulls and other seabirds who they suspect mistake the elastic bands for worms.
“We first noticed the bands on a monitoring visit during the breeding season and were puzzled why there were so many and how they'd got there,” said Mark Grantham from the West Cornwall Ringing Group in a statement. “To save disturbing the nesting birds, we made a special trip over in the autumn to clear the litter. Within just an hour we’d collected thousands of bands and handfuls of fishing waste."
A small rocky outpost off the Lizard Peninsula, Mullion island provides refuge for nesting birds. The uninhabited island is so remote that it requires a special permit to visit. Even so, the National Trust says that it is reeling from human impacts.
“Ingested plastic and rubber is another factor in a long list of challenges which our gulls and other seabirds must contend with just to survive,” said Rachel Holder, Area Ranger for the National Trust. “Despite being noisy and boisterous and seemingly common, gulls are on the decline. They’re already struggling with changes to fish populations and disturbance to nesting sites – and eating elastic bands and fishing waste does nothing to ease their plight."
Experts believe that great-backed and herring gulls mistake the rubber bands for food and pick them up when visiting agricultural fields on the mainland. Rangers reported finding tan, yellow, and green bands among regurgitated pellets, as well as bundles of green fishing net and twine that the birds likely scooped up from the surface of the ocean.
The organization asks that businesses consider how they get rid of plastic, latex, and other waste that may cause inadvertent harm to wildlife.
“Single-use materials are having an alarming impact on our country’s most remote places. It’s up to all of us to take responsibility for how we use and dispose of these items – whether we’re producers or consumers,” said Lizzy Carlyle, National Trust Head of Environmental Practices.
The National Trust notes that incidents of marine mammal entanglement and ingestion of plastics is well-known around the world and impact birds like those who call Mullion Island home. In recent years, the great black-backed gull populations have fallen by 30 percent and the herring gull is now listed as a bird of concern.
Plastic has become ubiquitous across the globe and its impacts are seen on animals at nearly every level, from the largest whales to the tiniest corals. Contaminants from plastic waste have been found inside the eggs of seabirds in the remote Arctic wilderness and wrapped up in the nests of swans. International efforts banning single-use plastics have made headway in recent years but its effects continue to trickle through ecosystems.