Dunlin with plastic exposure on the tundra (photo credit: Maria Gavrilo)

“There is very little information about the impacts of plastics on shorebirds”

28 May 2020
Interview with Dr Scott Flemming, 2020-2021 CAFF-IASC Fellow with the Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative

Dr Scott Flemming has been selected for the 2020-2021 joint fellowship offered by the Council’s Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group (CAFF) and the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). During his one-year fellowship, Dr Flemming aims at increasing our knowledge of how shorebirds breeding in the Arctic are impacted by plastic contamination. His work will fulfill an important need of CAFF’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative (AMBI) and contribute to implementing AMBI’s 2019-2023 work plan.

Dr Scott Flemming

Could you briefly tell us about your background and research interests?

I did my undergraduate studies in animal biology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. After that I spent some time working in various technician positions related to a number of different bird species– my interest has always been with birds, ever since I was a kid. Eventually, I went on and did a masters in zoology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, where I studied the diet of Little Penguins.

After my masters, I wanted to come back to Canada and transitioned to work with shorebirds in the Arctic. I started a PhD at Trent University in Peterborough, looking at the effects of overabundant snow goose populations on Arctic breeding shorebirds – which also has been a priority within the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna Working Group’s Arctic Migratory Birds Initiative, AMBI.

Currently, I am working for Environment and Climate Change Canada as the shorebird biologist for the Pacific Region in British Columbia. So, now I am more interested in what informs shorebirds migration strategies: how shorebirds choose stopover sites and how flexible they are with their migration strategies. The threat of plastics to shorebirds ties into this work – and perfectly combines my daily work and the fellowship.

During your fellowship you will focus on the prevalence and impacts of plastic contamination on Arctic-breeding shorebird populations. What sparked your interest in this topic?

I have always had an interest in the diet of birds, and plastic contamination in seabirds has been at the forefront of many diet contamination analyses recently. Many shorebirds also use the marine environment but there is very little information about the prevalence of plastics in shorebirds and the effects that might have. One of the best studies, a more recent one, comes from my colleagues here in British Columbia. They opportunistically collected Red Phalarope carcasses and identified plastics in their stomachs – which is one of the main reasons for the deaths of these individuals that wash up on shore. Phalaropes feed more at sea during the non-breeding season and so they might have a bigger exposure. However, there is a big knowledge gap regarding exposure and effects on species that use intertidal habitats.

We don’t know much yet about the effects of plastics on shorebirds, their risk of exposure and what might affect that exposure: is it habitat use, migratory routes, their diet or feeding strategy?Dr Scott Flemming, 2020-2021 CAFF-IASC Fellow

What made you apply for the CAFF-IASC fellowship?

Since I started in the biology research field, I have always been interested in how good science and research can inform policy decisions. I have had an interest in the pure science but my general goal is to design research that can help us to inform and influence any kind of decisions relating to conservation and management. I have a lot of experience in the scientific realm, but less so on the policy side of things. I felt that the fellowship could improve my knowledge of the science-policy interface, so I can target my research and monitoring to better inform policy decisions.

What are some of the knowledge gaps related to the impacts of plastics on birds that you hope to address during your CAFF-IASC fellowship?

In my preliminary work, I have identified lots of knowledge gaps. The seabird research has covered a baseline but we don’t know much yet about the effects of plastics on shorebirds, their risk of exposure and what might affect that exposure: is it habitat use, migratory routes, their diet or feeding strategy? The plan is to conduct a literature review, which hopefully will serve as baseline for studies that test its hypotheses.
Right now, there is also no standardized sampling protocol. So, another plan is to pull a protocol together that is based on previous seabird research. And then, the last step would be to set up a network to collect samples for analyses. One of the issues with shorebirds is that you cannot do non-lethal stomach sampling. So, we have to rely on relatively fresh carcasses that are found. Thus, the sample size is usually quite small. Setting up a network, could help us to get a larger collection of samples and do some proper stomach content analyses.

What do you hope to be the main outcome from your fellowship?

One of the big outcomes would be a good understanding of what the knowledge gaps are and to create a baseline of questions and hypotheses that can be tested in future studies. Then, to start the work on a standardized sampling protocol and to get all samples in one place so the studies can proceed and we are moving forward in answering these questions.
In the long-term – depending on our findings – the ultimate goal would be to inform decision making. I know this is in the process of happening for a number of seabirds, but since shorebirds might use different areas, we need to broaden our policies relating to the use of plastics. And personally, my main goal is to get a better understanding of the interlinkages between science and decision making, so I can target my research to inform policy.

So, summarizing, at the end of the fellowship I want to have:

  • published a literature review about what we do and don’t know about prevalence of plastics in shorebirds;
  • established a standardized sampling technique;
  • created a formal network of researchers with a standard protocol for shipping all samples to a central location
  • and have started the process of feeding the results into decision making.

Title photo: Dunlin with plastic exposure on the tundra. Photo credit: Maria Gavrilo