Remote Waters Offer No Refuge from Plastic Trash

Laysan albatross "moo" as part of a courtship dance. i i

Laysan albatross have an elaborate courtship dance that includes something biologists call a "sky moo." Many of the hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks that hatch each year on Midway Atoll don't make it, because their parents feed them plastic, thinking it is food. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Laysan albatross "moo" as part of a courtship dance.

Laysan albatross have an elaborate courtship dance that includes something biologists call a "sky moo." Many of the hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks that hatch each year on Midway Atoll don't make it, because their parents feed them plastic, thinking it is food.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Biologist John Klavitter and a Laysan albatross chick carcass i i

Biologist John Klavitter sorts through the contents of the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick carcass. According to Klavitter, a healthy albatross chick has one ounce of plastic in its belly, while a dead chick may have twice that much. Elizabeth Shogren, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Elizabeth Shogren, NPR
Biologist John Klavitter and a Laysan albatross chick carcass

Biologist John Klavitter sorts through the contents of the stomach of a Laysan albatross chick carcass. According to Klavitter, a healthy albatross chick has one ounce of plastic in its belly, while a dead chick may have twice that much.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR

Midway Atoll resident biologist John Klavitter is not surprised when he finds plastic in the bellies of dead Laysan albatross chicks.

Opening one chick's stomach with a bone, Klavitter finds lots of shiny black squid beaks and plenty of plastic.

"This looks like a little toy wheel from some children's toy there," Klavitter said.

It's difficult to find a place more remote than Midway Atoll, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Pacific. But many tons of plastic make their way here every year, and they put in peril the islands' exotic and endangered animals.

Even Midways' most abundant resident, the Laysan albatross, is at risk. These birds are about the size of turkeys, with elegant six-foot wing spans and a flamboyant courtship dance.

"They go up on their tippy toes, they clap their bills back and forth faster than I can snap my hands. They lift their bills up and give this amazing sky moo. It's just beautiful," Klavitter said.

But many of the hundreds of thousands of Laysan albatross chicks that hatch here each year don't make it — so many that it's someone's job to pick up the bodies.

Klavitter says he can't say how many birds die from ingesting plastic. But on average, an Albatross chick can have one ounce of plastic in its belly and still be healthy; a dead chick generally has twice that much.

"Two ounces might not seem a lot, but plastic is very light so if you look at the volume it's really significant. Perhaps about a third of their stomach is plastic," Klavitter said. "That's 30 percent less food that the chick can have in its stomach."

That can lead to dehydration, starvation and death.

How Plastic Gets There

Cigarette lighters, bottle caps and all kinds of other plastic trash scatter the island. But the plastic in the chicks' bellies comes from hundreds of miles away, according to Klavitter

"The chicks are totally dependent on being fed by their parents. So, the parents will fly quite a distance from Midway, land on the ocean, and they float on the ocean, much like a duck, and they wait for food to come to the surface," Klavitter said.

And what they often see is plastic bobbing on the water. They grab it and they fly as much as 1,000 miles back to Midway to feed what they think is food to their chicks.

Klavitter says the plastic comes from cities and towns all around the Pacific Ocean.

"Most likely, the majority of the plastic is thrown into streets. And eventually it will go down a storm drain, it will go down into a river and finally flow out into the ocean," Klavitter says.

Circular currents, known as the North Pacific Gyre, bring plastic to Midway Atoll from all over the vast ocean. And for coral researcher Jamie Barlow, not only is it common to spot plastic bobbing in the crystal clear waters, he and a team of researchers often pull out of the ocean tangled messes of plastic, fishing line and nets.

Marine biologist Wendy Cover says fishing nets and lines that are either discarded or accidentally fall off fishing boats all around the Pacific end up in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The chain of tiny islands, which includes Midway Atoll, stretches for more than 1,000 miles northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.

Whirling Debris

The scads of swirling trash get caught on the shallow reefs and coral of the Northwestern Hawaiian island chain. It breaks off chunks of coral, killing it.

"This is kind of typical marine debris, too," Barlow said. "It's a bunch of gobbledygook. And as you can imagine, floating around out there, it would be great habitat for little fish. So larger things come in to eat little fish and crabs."

Hawaiian monk seals are also vulnerable. They're one of the most endangered animals on Earth, with only about 1,000 left.

They're curious by nature, and they poke their heads into the snarls of plastic and get caught in the tangle. Whales, dolphins, turtles and countless seabirds also get trapped.

The federal government is concerned about the problem. President Bush named the whole chain of islands the Papanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. He even banned fishing here, but he can't keep the plastic out.

"In the last 10 years, we've taken almost 550 tons out of the Northwestern Hawaiian islands," said Michael Tosatto, deputy regional director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Government divers recently pulled out of the Midway waters what amounted to a huge pile of ropes, netting, buckets, buoys and other assorted plastic trash.

"And this was all picked up, only from Midway, in a four-day period." Tosatto said.

The problem isn't going away. Fifty tons of plastic arrive in Midways' waters each year, according to the U.S. government.

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