Midway Albatross Count: Day 9

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Midway Albatross Count: Day 9

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Hawaii Island , Kauai , Maui , Oahu
Dec 22, 2008

It’s time to talk about the trash. More specifically, the plastic.

Just about every albatross nest site here on Midway has bits of plastic in it. Albatross use whatever is within reaching distance of their nest to build the home for their egg. In the ironwood forests, I see nests built up with tiny pine cones. In the fields with verbesina, I see nests built up with sticks of the invasive weed. Near the beach, it’s sand. On the side of the runway, it’s tiny bits of gravel. Almost all albatrosses use some amount of plastic to build their nests.

Whatever an albatross cannot digest, it regurgitates as a bolus—something like a cat coughing up a hair ball. Squid breaks are almost always found in a bolus. These days, so, too, is plastic.

Albatrosses are surface-feeding birds. When albatrosses feed on the ocean, they often ingest plastic. Plastic bottle caps. Plastic cigarette lighters. Plastic tooth brushes. Plastic toy animals. Plastic fishing lures. Bits and pieces of all colors of plastic—red, green, yellow, orange, blue, pink. Sometimes, the albatrosses mistake the plastic for food; other times, they ingest food—fish eggs, for example—that are attached to the plastic.

When a bird incubates an egg on its nest for days or weeks at a time, at some point, the bird upchucks. Up comes the plastic. It then becomes material for a nest. But not all the plastic comes up. Some remains in the bird’s belly until it dies. Some may even cause the bird’s death.

Plastic doesn’t just appear in nest sites. It is revealed in albatross carcasses around the island. The body may decompose, but the plastic doesn’t.

What makes me sad are the albatross chicks that starve to death with a full belly. Of plastic. When the parent regurgitates a meal for the chick, that meal may contain plastic. Unfortunately, the young ones are not always able to produce a bolus.

But where does the plastic come? I mean, Midway is in the middle of the ocean. Bingo. It all comes from the ocean. From fishing boats, container ships and other ocean-going vessels. It also comes from land. In fact, a larger percentage than you would ever guess comes from beaches, shoreline and rivers. Anything below high tide line gets washed out to sea. Rivers flush plastic (and other pollutants) into the ocean. If you think of the North Pacific Ocean as a big mixing bowl, the plastic that comes from North America, say, may swirl around on the ocean’s current for years, sweeping south to Hawaii and west to Japan, and, then, up to the Aleutians where it becomes a meal for a hungry albatross.

So, do me a favor, will you. Reduce. Re-use. Recycle.


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