The public have been urged to “dispose of masks carefully” after the Irish Wildlife Trust posted an image of a puffin that had become entangled in a face mask and died.
"Someone's thoughtlessness has led to a sad end for a puffin," an Instagram post made by the charity on Sunday read. The photograph was sent to the charity.
A spokesman for the Irish Wildlife Trust said that while there is currently no data on whether incorrect disposal of face masks is a serious issue on its own, “we can assume that it is adding to the issue of marine litter and plastic waste that we know presents serious issues for wildlife”.
“The number one threat to marine life is commercial fishing but marine plastic, and in particular discarded fishing nets, is also seen to be a problem that is adding to all the other threats facing marine life,” the spokesman said.
Plastic pollution in our oceans has become a "particularly serious problem for many seabirds, as well as for whales, fish and other marine creatures, which believe it to be food and eat it," a spokesman for Birdwatch Ireland said.
The conservation organisation is finding that many dead seabirds found on Irish beaches have stomachs full of plastic, meaning there was no room for food, or their digestive tracts became blocked and they starved.
It is thought that the majority of Ireland’s seabirds now have at least some plastic in their digestive systems, he said.
Discarded fishing nets and lines are another problem, as waterbirds become tangled in them and sometimes are strangled or seriously injured. Face masks can pose a similar threat, Birdwatch Ireland’s spokesman said.
“We would urge everyone please to dispose of them carefully, in proper, secure bins, and also please to snip the ear-loops with scissors before throwing them away. This will help to prevent birds and other wild animals from becoming entangled.”
Birdwatch Ireland has had a handful of reports of birds getting their legs tangled in face masks, though there are no statistics on how serious a problem it may be.
“Certainly, any harm to wildlife from masks would be completely avoidable, however, so it’s a real shame when things like this happen.”