Quantifying ingested debris in marine megafauna: a review and recommendations for standardization
Plastic pollution has become one of the largest environmental challenges we currently face. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) has listed it as a critical problem, comparable to climate change, demonstrating both the scale and degree of the environmental problem. Mortalities due to entanglement in plastic fishing nets and bags have been reported for marine mammals, turtles and seabirds, and to date over 690 marine species have been reported to ingest plastics. The body of literature documenting plastic ingestion by marine megafauna (i.e. seabirds, turtles, fish and marine mammals) has grown rapidly over the last decade, and it is expected to continue grow as researchers explore the ecological impacts of marine pollution. Unfortunately, a cohesive approach by the scientific community to quantify plastic ingestion by wildlife is lacking, which is now hindering spatial and temporal comparisons between and among species/organisms. Here, we discuss and propose standardized techniques, approaches and metrics for reporting debris ingestion that are applicable to most large marine vertebrates. As a case study, we examine how the use of standardized methods to report ingested debris in Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) has enabled long term and spatial trends in plastic pollution to be studied. Lastly, we outline standardized metric recommendations for reporting ingested plastics in marine megafauna, with the aim to harmonize the data that are available to facilitate large-scale comparisons and meta-analyses of plastic accumulation in a variety of taxa. If standardized methods are adopted, future plastic ingestion research will be better able to inform questions related to the impacts of plastics across taxonomic, ecosystem and spatial scales.