The viral photo shows an adult black skimmer passing a cigarette butt to a baby bird. A second photo shows the baby bird walking with the butt in its beak.
Florida photographer Karen Mason captured the photo in late June while volunteering for the Audubon Society, a bird conservation group. The birds were passing the cigarette on St. Pete Beach, west of Tampa, Fla.
“If you smoke, please don’t leave your butts behind,” Mason wrote in a post on Facebook.
An adult black skimmer passes a cigarette butt to a chick in this image captured near Tampa, Fla. Hundreds shared or responded to the post with outrage on social media.
“This doesn’t just hurt our animals and environment, it can create forest fires as well,” Facebook user Liette Ricard wrote. “Very powerful picture message right here, folks. Pretty sad.”
“People are disgusting!” added Josee Noel.
“So sad to see,” user Cody Michels wrote in a comment. “I’ll be making sure all my garbage gets to the trash from this point on.”
WATCH: How plastic waste ends up in our oceans
Cigarette butts are among the most common forms of human-made pollution in the ocean. Nearly two-thirds of the 5.6 trillion cigarettes made each year are dumped irresponsibly, according to advocates with the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project. Many of those cigarette butts end up in the world’s waterways.
Butts are composed primarily of a plastic filter designed to capture the most toxic chemicals released by a burning cigarette. Plastic in the filter can take decades to break down in the environment.
The United Nations says there are more than 100 million tonnes of plastic waste in the world’s oceans today.
WATCH: Cigarettes polluting Canadian shorelines
More than 180 countries agreed to reduce the flow of plastic garbage into the ocean last May following intense public pressure on the issue.
Photos played a major role in building that public pressure, according to Paul Rose, expedition leader for the National Geographic Pristine Seas Expeditions.
“It was those iconic images of the dead albatross chicks on the Pacific Islands with their stomachs open and all recognizable plastic items inside it, and most recently, it’s been when we discovered the nano-particles do cross the blood-brain barrier, and we were able to prove that plastic is in us,” Rose told Reuters in May.
The United States was one of the few countries that refused to participate in the agreement.
— With files from Reuters