Coming to Grips with Plastic Pollution, One Bird at a Time

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Sure, we've seen the photos. We've seen the sad images of albatross skeletons filled to bursting with plastic debris, the decaying outline of a chick or adult with the rainbow center. I've seen a lot of these photos from different sources over the years, including those we've published on TreeHugger, but when I visited Midway I wanted to see it for myself.

While there is an understanding we gain from a photograph, it is difficult to get the full emotional impact of an event or sight. That is the case with these birds who are dying from our plastic trash tossed out to sea, at least for me. I get the problem, but I wanted to get it. I wanted to be hit by it, punched in the gut when I finally saw for myself what a stomach full of plastic does to these birds. I never saw it. I looked everywhere, but I never saw it.

There are some possibilities. One possibility is that last year's tsunami washed away many older carcasses; however, this is not a likely possibility according to my talk with a USFWS biologist. There has also been an increased collection of dead birds by USFWS during the season to reduce the risk of disease. There was also rumor that some visiting photographers are moving carcasses after getting their shots. And finally there's the fact that there are more carcasses in the Fall and Winter after fledgling chicks die, though several people who have visited the atoll multiple times including in the Spring noted that they've seen more of these multi-colored carcasses in years past than this year. Whatever the reason, the fact is I did not see first hand the destructive force of our plastic problem.

But there is one person who has been witnessing this for years, for so many years that he almost forgot the visceral reaction to seeing it for the first time. Biologist Wayne Sentman, who leads groups on Midway for the non-profit organization Oceanic Society, is working on a Masters' thesis that revolves around the plastic pollution problem. He recently wrote an article for Harvard Extension that gives some first hand details about the impact, and the scale of the issue. Here is his article in full:

For a moment I forgot what a sad sight it must be for the tour group I was leading. In front of us lay a dead Laysan albatross chick, one of the unsuccessful young from the previous “hatch” year. In the exposed rib cage, many brightly colored objects were clearly visible.

© Wayne Sentman

As an ecotour leader at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, I was simply excited to find one of these intact carcasses so that I could use the opportunity to talk about the environmental problem of marine plastic pollution for ocean ecosystems and the wildlife dependant on them.

As the group gathered closer, we began to dissect the carcass. The group’s initial wonder at what all this colorful “stuff” was inside the dead bird turned to outrage and ultimately shame as we all started to recognized plastic objects from our daily lives (some we had even used that morning). In the end we counted three lighters, two magic marker caps, one toothbrush, numerous bottle caps, and many small unidentifiable pieces of plastic.

While this discovery was shocking to the group, especially given that we were on one of the most remote islands in the Pacific Ocean, it was a sight that I first saw in 1998 when I made my initial trip to Midway Atoll. I was helping monitor the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population.
I am currently a Harvard Extension School master’s candidate in the Sustainability and Environmental Management Graduate Program. From 1998 to 2002 I lived on Midway Atoll, working on projects related to the three albatross species that nest there, tagging green sea turtles, and assisting with habitat restoration efforts. As a part-time graduate student I have been able to continue working while taking classes. Since 2008 I have been leading weeklong ecotourism groups to Midway for the Oceanic Society, a marine conservation organization based outside San Francisco.

About 1,200 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands you will find Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Midway is part of the world’s third largest marine protected area (an area larger than all the US national parks combined), the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  In July 2010 this marine monument became the first mixed United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in the United States, being recognized for both its unique and intact predator-dominated marine ecosystem, and its cultural heritage as “an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world.”

However, as wild and beautiful as Midway Atoll is one of the topics increasingly being studied and documented at Midway relates to the impact marine plastic pollution is having on the resident albatross nesting there. Each year in late October over 400,000 albatross pairs return to nest. Midway is home to the world’s largest nesting colonies of Laysan and black-footed albatross. And recently the first recorded nesting in modern times of the highly endangered short-tailed albatross has also been recorded on Midway. This milestone was made all the more impressive by the young short-tailed chick that survived last year’s tsunami.

Midway is an exceptional location to study the problem plastic pollution presents to the Northern Pacific albatross species since the areas they feed in overlap with the large “trash” gyres that have been identified in the North Pacific.

The albatross chicks sitting on their nest sites for the first four months of their lives get all of their food directly from their parents. These adults regurgitate meals collected (in large part) from these same gyre areas of the North Pacific.

For my master’s thesis I am hoping to re-create a 1994 study that examines the actual amount of plastic that these chicks ingest during their nesting interval, before developing the ability to regurgitate just before they fledge. I would like to see if over this 19-year interval the amount of plastic ingested by the albatross chicks at Midway has changed. Current estimates calculate that about five metric tons of marine plastic pollution is accidentally fed to chicks each year at Midway. As many of these chicks do not survive, and those that due regurgitate undigested objects right before they fledge, all of that plastic is basically landfilled on Midway’s islands annually.

For a small piece of paradise, so remote from the rest of the world, Midway is a bit of a paradox. The resident wildlife species are exposed to environmental challenges that you would associate with more populated regions.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

It is hard to understand the sheer scale of the issue without seeing it. Midway is an ideal place to start to grasp the impact. But the reality is that it is impossible to see it. Yes, we can witness the carcasses of birds that have died by ingesting plastics -- plastics we recognize when we see them again. But the problem is of a scale so large, it's hard to wrap our brains around it. And yet, we have to.

Walking around Midway collecting plastics, from toothbrush handles to toys to even a completely intact syringe, made me realize that while we struggle to understand the fact that what we toss aside -- your disposable razor, your dental floss, the lid to the bottle of juice you just drank -- ends up in the belly of an animal thousands of miles away, it doesn't change the fact that it happens.

This is a solvable problem. And getting a grasp of our plastic use is the solution, the simple yet incredibly hard solution. Here is more reading on how to Refuse Disposable Plastic from the Plastic Pollution Coalition.

© Jaymi Heimbuch

Tags: Midway | Plastics | Pollution

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