What threatens birds at a wildlife refuge in the Pacific?
It’s a privilege to visit the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on Midway Atoll, an island in the North Pacific Ocean where the Battle of Midway was fought during World War II. The Navy officially departed in the late 1990s, after undertaking a massive cleanup, and now the refuge is an important, yet fragile, habitat. Millions of migratory birds nest there. Both the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and the threatened green sea turtle live there, and a spinner dolphin colony inhabits the surrounding waters and regularly visits the lagoon. The lagoon supports 200 species of fish.
This incredible ecosystem has come a long way since it became a refuge in 1988, but when a friend and I were allowed to visit the island in 1997 to participate in research projects (it’s no longer possible to visit there), I came face to face with a harsh reality: The refuge’s fascinating population of Laysan albatrosses (also called Goonies) is threatened by, of all things, plastic.
Each week, ocean currents carry 100 pounds of plastic to Midway Atoll’s shores. This plastic is killing birds.
Sea birds instinctively think anything floating in the water is food, including plastic carelessly discarded by humans hundreds of miles away: toothbrushes, combs, cups, sunglasses, flip flops. The birds eat plastic but can’t digest it. They feel full, stop eating, and die of starvation and dehydration. Each week, we cleaned the beach of huge amounts of trash, and we came across dead birds with their insides exposed and pieces of plastic visible in their stomach contents. Disposable lighters—toxic fluid encased in plastic—are doubly hazardous. On our arrival in the refuge office, we saw a large box three-quarters full of lighters collected from the beach.
Approximately one-third of albatross chicks die because the reflex that would cause them to regurgitate and expel plastic does not develop for four months. Experts estimate that an albatross on Midway may have up to fifty percent of its intestinal tract filled with plastic. Sea turtles and monk seals also consume the plastic.
My visit made me acutely aware of how important it is to dispose of our trash properly. Please, recycle (Georgetown has a great program). Keep a litter bag in your car instead of tossing things out the window. Pick up litter you find. Reduce the amount of plastic you use. What happens on Midway, believe it or not, starts here.
A world traveler, Winnie Bowen seeks out the unusual in common places. Read her travel blog at traveltalesr.blogspot.com.
To learn more about threats to the Laysan albatross population, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org.