Marine Conservation Biology in Hawaii

Midway (Saturday 1/23/10)- Plastic for breakfast, lunch and dinner
by -- January 25th, 2010

Just another day in the life of an albatross

Being 1250 miles from the nearest inhabited island, one might suspect we find ourselves in an unspoiled environment with little or no sign of human presence.  Unfortunately for Midway Atoll this is not the case, as plastic shards, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and fishing floats litter the ground.  Whereas tidal action and wind brings a significant amount of marine debris onto beaches each year, the items I refer to find their way to the island in the stomach of an albatross.  Although we are already very cognizant of this fact, to completely grasp the quantity of plastic an albatross ingests we set out on a mission today to collect, sort and weigh the stomach contents of a dead albatross chick (from last breeding season) on the island.

Cristina sorts through the plastic

Cristina sorts through the plastic

Finding a good specimen to collect stomach contents from was a task in itself; however, the real challenge arose when trying to sort each of the small fragments the bird had ingested.  In addition to 60 squid beaks, my chick’s stomach contained:  9 bottle caps, 6 pumice stones, 2 strands of dental floss, a 5 inch Japanese fishing float, and 103 pieces of plastic.  Combined, the stomach contents of my chick totaled 3.5 ounces.  Despite the remarkable number of objects within my bird, Cristina and Matt P. found chicks that contained 5 ounces and 5.75 ounces of plastic, respectively.  Even more astounding, Cristina’s chick’s stomach held 17 plastic bottle caps and a hypodermic needle.  Prior to our collecting stomach contents, John Klavitter—deputy manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge—explained to us that each year albatrosses bring 4.5 metric tons of plastic onto the island.  These plastics get deposited one of two ways: 1) Boluses containing plastics that are regurgitated by adults, or 2) Plastics that are left on the ground as dead albatross chicks decompose.  Additionally, we learned that a healthy albatross chick can tolerate having approximately 0.5 ounce of plastic in their stomachs, but as that quantity approaches 1.0 ounce the likelihood of mortality greatly increases.  Consequently,  many of the cute and fuzzy hatchlings we have watched emerge during our time here will not survive to make their first flight.

Although we are only halfway through our trip, the daily sights and sounds of Midway have instilled an awe in me that is impossible to put into words.  Tom McMurray made the comment this morning “This is the toughest job in the world”, referring to the myriad challenges and obstacles facing ocean conservation.  Throughout the day, I frequently found myself pondering these words because so many times in my life people have asked me why I am I pursuing a career in ocean conservation.   Having the opportunity to visit Midway and witnessing the impact that a few, devoted, incredibly hardworking people can have on marine conservation has done nothing but reaffirm the passion I possess for the ocean.  Although I must depart this magical place in a few short days, I am certain that my experiences here will embed themselves deep within me as I prepare to engage new challenges in ocean conservation.  Finally, as I reflect one last time upon the encounters I have had since arriving on Midway I believe Tom is correct.  Yes, this may be the toughest job in the world; but I—along with the 9 colleagues with whom I have shared this experience—am most willing.

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