Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Day 7: Who Belongs to this Stuff?
by -- January 24th, 2012

Very few people actually visit Midway Island and when they come, they are allowed to bring no more than 50 lbs of stuff. And yet many people, especially those living along the Pacific Ocean, have indirectly impacted the island — their stuff has already made it here.

With strong winds, dark clouds and persistent rain, the Midway weather gods granted us a partial day of rest.  Like many Americans, the group enjoyed a lazy Sunday morning cheering for or jeering at the Ravens vs. Patriots game that was broadcast on the Armed Forces Network.

As the time clock wound down, the skies cleared and the group biked out past the airplane hanger, along the southern edge of the runway to the southwestern corner of the island.

The map of Midway Island.  Frigate Beach (see arrows) is at the SW corner of the map.

The map of Midway Island. Frigate Beach (see arrows) is at the SW corner of the map.

With Tracy Wurth from the NOAA Monk Seal Program at our side, we ventured out to the closed beach at Frigate Point to collect and remove trash.  It was important to have Tracy with us because monk seals like to haul out on this beach — in fact one was on the beach today — so she helped ensure that we didn’t bother the seals.

Each day garbage of all shapes and sizes — stray glass and plastic bottles, disposable plastic pens, abandoned fishing gear and buoys – makes its way from our city streets, landfills and boats to the ocean and is concentrated and transported across the Pacific by the North Pacific Gyre.  According to the UN, approximately 8 million items of marine litter enter the ocean each day, of which, 90% is plastic.  This marine debris makes its way across the Pacific before it is dumped on the beaches of Midway.

Our first view of the white sand beach at Frigate Point.

Our first view of the white sand beach at Frigate Point.

As we approached the beach, it was clear that the beautiful white sand was punctuated by thousands upon thousands of pieces of trash.  We had quite a task set out for us!  Our goal was to gather as many of the big items as possible — especially those that posed a risk of entanglement for monk seals.

Upon closer inspection, the beach was littered with all kinds of marine debris.

Upon closer inspection, the beach was littered with all kinds of marine debris.

Over the course of four hours, we dragged hundreds of feet of rope, multiple fishnets, easily 50 old buoys and countless chunks of broken plastic, not to mention hundreds of glass bottles and the odd sandal off the beach.  We filled the John Deere gator 4 times and yet we easily could have filled it 400 times if we had had enough people.

Andy, Jessica and Tracy cut through an enormous rope so we can haul it off the beach.

Andy, Jessica and Tracy cut through an enormous rope so we can haul it off the beach.

As we were gathering our debris before transporting it to the recycling center, we had to be careful not to accidentally put our backpacks, shoes and other personal items on the truck.  Andy picked up a pack and shouted out: “Who belongs to this stuff?”  Someone claimed the item but I thought his word choice and the situation was insightful.  Perhaps ironically, Andy was hinting at the power that material items have over our day-to-day life.  We had spent the afternoon trying to make amends for this extremely disfunctional relationship.  All the items we collected used to belong to somebody — just like the backback.  For whatever reason, however, through individual or societal wrecklessness, nobody had taken responsibility for the stuff we had just collected.  Sure four hours of work is a drop in the proverbial bucket and will be reversed by the next storm system, but the image of a remote, closed beach filled with trash from all over the world is hard to erase.

There is a lot that we can do to stop marine debris — whether here on Midway or back at home.  To learn more about marine debris — and what you can do to prevent it — take a look at the following government and non-profit organizations:

NOAA

EPA

Ocean Conservancy

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