Valuing Volunteers: Midway Atoll Relies on Free Labor

It is hard to keep an atoll running, especially on a tight budget. USFWS is allotted a very small stash of money every year with which to pay staff, run programs such as habitat restoration efforts and monitor the health of the islands in the atoll. Because the budget is so tight, volunteers have become a critical part of the system.

Midway's Wildlife Biologist Pete Leary told me that the volunteers coming to Midway are very important. There is only one field technician, which means that the important work like eradicating invasive species over the some 1,500 acres across three islands would be next to impossible without the extra hands. There is a lot of work to do, and not enough staff to do it. But volunteers are stepping up.

A Typical Volunteer
Midway Atoll takes on three volunteers every three months. Interested people can apply online, and while graduate students looking for field experience are favored, anyone with any background and any level of experience can apply. There are no real requirements except an able body and an enthusiasm for nature. Well, almost no requirements. FWS asks that "volunteers must be able to get along well with others in a remote environment; be in good physical condition, have no significant medical issues; be able to swim, ride a bike, hike up to 3 miles a day in the sand, and lift 40 pounds."

These requirements weren't a problem for the volunteers on Midway during my visit. They were affable, smart, and varied in age and background. For instance, Jennifer Kardiak once worked in the film industry making documentaries but when the company she worked with switched to more reality TV programming than documentaries she decided it was time to move on. She is now looking to discover just what area of biology she is most interested in pursuing, and Midway allows her the time and experience working with everything from seabirds to marine animals. Another volunteer, Laura Marie Koitsch, has studied languages and law, and is getting her PhD in biology with the goal of being a field technician. Volunteering on Midway is ideal experience -- and Midway needs their help.

The work done by the volunteers can be very physical. The most common tasks include pulling weeds and planting native plants as part of the habitat restoration projects, and checking the seeps of the endangered Laysan ducks for signs of botulism, a disease caused by bacteria that affects the nervous system and which took out 134 ducks in the population a few years back. There are also marine debris clean-ups, and projects like checking albatross plots for survival rates and monitoring CO2 levels for NOAA. These last two tasks are some I was lucky enough to tag along on with Jennifer and Laura Marie.

Counting Albatross Chicks

Midway has set up plot lines in various microhabitats on Midway, from sandier areas along the beaches to more sheltered areas. The goal is to monitor the survival rates of chicks within these plots and extrapolate the data to represent the health of the rest of the island, giving biologists a good idea of how the population of albatross are doing across the atoll.

The volunteers have a check list with each parent of each chick listed, and codes for the status of each chick, from egg all the way to fledging. They visit the plot and match the nest number with the temporary band placed on each chick, noting if the chick is alive, if it is with a parent or is feeding, and so on.

Checking the chicks is not always an easy task. As the chicks get more mobile they tend to wander and it can take awhile to find them. And as they get bigger and moodier, they can clamp their beaks down pretty hard on a volunteer's arm. Being patient and gentle goes a long way in getting the plot checks done and the data collected is incredibly important for monitoring the status of these endangered and vulnerable bird species.

Hold Your Breath for CO2

Another interesting task to accomplish is taking a measurement of carbon dioxide for NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory GMD Carbon Cycle Greenhouse Gases Group. This project is monitoring levels of carbon dioxide around the world to understand how levels are changing. Midway Atoll was chosen as one of four base stations as far from any pollution sources affecting gases of interest. Getting a reading from Midway in addition to the other base stations is getting as accurate of a measurement of changing CO2 levels as possible. And carbon levels even on Midway are going up.

The volunteers receive canisters to fill using special equipment. They drive the equipment out to a part of the island that is away from the buildings and near the ocean. The canisters are flushed and when the canisters begin to fill with air, the volunteers hold their breath and walk a short distance from the equipment so as not to influence the reading even with their breathing. The canisters then get shipped back to NOAA for lab readings.

Valuing Volunteers
Without the help of volunteers on Midway, we likely wouldn't see the amazing progress made thus far on restoring Midway's habitat. Vital programs such as monitoring sources and amounts of marine debris so that we can understand the condition of our oceans would be more difficult, as would monitoring the health of seabird species and marine animal species. Midway is making a comeback as a safe, healthy place for wildlife and in addition to the dedicated FWS staff, volunteers are in large part the people to thank.

It is amazing what FWS is able to accomplish with a shoestring budget. It is even more amazing to see what can be accomplished by people willing to pay their own way on the atoll and work for free in order to be part of this incredible place. The value of volunteers...well, they're invaluable.

If you'd like to take part in an expedition to Midway or other atolls, check out the trips offered by the conservation group Oceanic Society. It's ecotourism at its best!

Valuing Volunteers: Midway Atoll Relies on Free Labor
Midway Atoll is making an amazing comeback as habitat is restored and the wildlife species protected -- and volunteers are in large part to thank.

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