University of British Columbia researcher Stephanie Avery-Gomm said the amount of plastic a northern fulmar gobbles up provides a snapshot of the garbage that ends up in a big part of the Pacific Ocean.
The results of the study mirror that of various European countries' research done last year of the notoriously polluted North Sea, although the situation seems to be improving there, Avery-Gomm said.
Necropsies of 67 of the beached gull-like seabirds collected between October 2009 and April 2010 from the coasts of B.C., Washington and Oregon indicated nearly 93 per cent of them had bellyfuls of plastic, she said.
One bird had 454 pieces of plastic in its gut, said Avery-Gomm, the study's lead author and graduate of the university's zoology department.
She said the results of the study, published online in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, suggest plastic pollution should be monitored annually and people need to be aware of the long-term effects of what they're tossing out.
"Anything that gets into a river, anything that gets into the sewage system, anything that ends up on a beach is probably headed straight for the ocean."
The graceful northern fulmars breed in Alaska, are cousins of the albatross and are oceanic creatures that don't often venture onto shore.
They also don't regurgitate the plastic they consume from the surface of the ocean. Ingesting it can directly kill the birds or cause gastrointestinal blockage, lacerations and reduced feeding.
While many countries have documented plastic debris in the marine environment, no standard technique has been used, and the lack of consistent methodology has made it difficult to monitor trends or to compare plastic pollution between different regions of the world, the study says.
"This highlights the need for a reliable, internationally standardized method of monitoring trends in plastic pollution."
About 260 marine species, including turtles, fish and seabirds are known to become entangled in plastic or eat it.
Northern fulmars are ideal biological monitors of trends in plastic pollution because they have a vast migratory range, forage just about anything in the environment and are prone to washing up on beaches in sufficient numbers.
The first study of plastic ingestion in the birds was conducted south of the Alaska Peninsula in 1980 by the University of Alaska. It found that 58 per cent of the birds collected between 1969 and 1977 had consumed plastic.
The current study shows that the incidence of plastic ingestion among northern fulmars is 92.5 per cent, Avery-Gomm said.
The mass of plastic that's eaten also increased dramatically — from 0.04 grams in 1969-1977 to 0.385 grams in the current study, she said, adding the average northern fulmar weighs about 800 grams.
Avery-Gomm said further study is needed, possibly combining the efforts of Canadian and American researchers.
"It would be totally feasible to have a Canada-U.S. collaborative effort where people in Alaska collect fulmar there, we collect fulmar here, Washington and Oregon and California all collect their fulmar and we all dissect them according to these internationally standardized protocols and compare results. That's what they're doing in the North Sea."
Her concerns about the awareness of disposing plastic were echoed by Karen Wristen, spokeswoman for the Living Oceans Society.
"At the national level there needs to be some kind of response beyond voluntary beach cleanups that's going to deal with the amount that accumulates on public lands," Wristen said.
"And of course, globally, we need to raise awareness in other nations of exactly the same problems, and getting them working on them. It is a huge, huge problem to deal with and one that can't simply be solved at one level."