Most people know the Hawaiian Island archipelago as a half-dozen islands strung like pearls on a necklace, stretching from the youngest and still growing Hawaii (Big) Island, at the southeast end of the chain where it sits over a hotspot in the Earth’s mantle, to the grand dame of the main Hawaiian Islands Kauai, 350 miles northeast of the lava wellspring deep within the earth’s core that created these tropical islands.
When I tell visitors to Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge—where I volunteer as a wildlife interpreter—that the Hawaiian Islands do not end with Kauai, I am usually met with dead air and a head that angles to one side. “Really?” they seem to be saying, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
When I tell them the Hawaiian Island chain runs another 1,100 miles north/north-east, I get another meaningless, “Really?”
When I say something about Midway, I sometimes see a flicker of recognition in their eyes. “You know, Midway,” I say, “From World War II.” And, then, their heads may nod—ever so slowly. Military people and history buffs, of course, know all about Midway, but, I have learned, few people know Midway sits along the Hawaiian Island chain—in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, now also known as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a protected conservation area. Midway itself is now known as Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Twenty-eight million years ago, Midway sat over the same hot spot upon which Hawaii Island rests. Then, it was, no doubt, mountainous and majestic, unlike the sand hill dunes and spit of an island that it is today, thanks to wind and water erosion.
Due to the movement of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, the earth’s crust shifts about 3.5 inches per year, creating a conveyor belt of islands burped up over 70 million years. That explains the chain of islands, islets, atolls and seamounts running from the mid Pacific clear up to Midway and beyond to the Aleutian Trench.
I am alternately surprised when people do and do not know about Midway. You may recall that I spent the last two weeks of 2008 there helping count albatross nest sites on behalf of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
At the end of 2009, I spent two weeks in the frigid Midwest (we’re talking Fahrenheit here and cold--single digits and temperatures dipping in the negative numbers on a few days). Imagine my surprise when one of my mother’s golfing friends asked me about Midway.
“You know about Midway?” I asked.
Indeed, she had. More, she knew about Midway today—in addition to the historical, military Midway. This retired woman living in the Midwest had recently attended a presentation by Jean-Michel Cousteau.
“Is it true?” she asked. Unfortunately, what she knew—and wanted confirmation on—about Midway related to its trash. More specifically, marine debris.
Each year, thousands of pounds of marine debris wash ashore—throughout all the Hawaiian Islands.
“Yes, it’s true,” I said. Based on my visit a year ago, I estimate that every single Laysan and Black-footed albatross nest—and I’m talking somewhere in the neighborhood of half-a-million nests—has some sort of plastic in it. Fishnet. Cigarette lighter. Toothbrush. Bottle cap. And broken bits and pieces of plastic of every color in the rainbow. The plastic washes ashore. As well, adult albatrosses flying over the vast surface of the ocean mistake floating bits of plastic for food. They ingest it and, then, regurgitate it for their chick back on its nest site.
Because the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are now protected as a marine monument--known as Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument--clean up activities do occur there. But the north Pacific where a garbage patch that circulates in a gyre isn't the only place on the planet where marine debris collects. We have plenty of our own marine debris right here in the main Hawaiian Islands.
A few days ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced a plan to help remove man-made debris from coastal waters and coral reefs on and near the Hawaiian Islands. It is the first of its kind. A new year's resolution of another kind that I can get behind and shout, "Yes."
Here is a link to an article on it that ran in the Midway blog post and a link to a feature story I have written about marine debris.
Remember what you can do to help prevent marine debris--as I'm really talking about plastic here--even if you live as far away as Missouri:
Reduce: Instead of buying single-serving items, say of yogurt, buy larger sizes.
Reuse: Find a new use for plastic containers, say, to house spare screws and nails.
Recycle: And not just to the dump, maybe as art.