High above the waves, an albatross glides on the ocean breeze. With a sturdy six-foot wingspan, she has persevered through countless storms, travelled thousands of miles, and witnessed her environment change dramatically. Her name is Wisdom, and she is a 64 year old Laysan albatross from the Northern Hawaiian Islands. While she is the world’s oldest known banded bird, her longevity is a shared trait with other albatross, which regularly reach 40 years of age. Laysan albatross take years to reach maturity, reproduce slowly, and mate for life.
Given their longevity, scientists are alarmed by the increasingly common sight of dead or dying albatross chicks on beaches across the Pacific. The problem is especially apparent on Midway Atoll, an important stopover for seabirds inside the recently expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
Only 45 people live on Midway, a coralline outpost over 1,300 miles from Honolulu. Despite its isolation, Midway’s beaches are littered with buoys, bottle caps, cigarette butts, plastic bags, derelict fishing gear, and millions of tiny brightly colored plastic fragments.
An abundance of plastic has made the beaches of Midway hazardous for Wisdom, her chicks, and other marine life.
Albatross and other marine life, including sea turtles, often confuse plastic with their natural food source and ingest it in a case of mistaken identity. This plastic lingers in their stomachs and can fatally clog their digestive tract. In recent years, dead seabirds and sea turtles have been found with over 100 different plastic fragments lodged in their stomachs.
The origin of Midway’s plastic problem is an unfortunate byproduct of global ocean currents, known as gyres, which concentrate marine debris from across the globe in the center of the world’s ocean basins. The largest of these gyres, known colloquially as the Pacific Garbage Patch, is twice the size of Texas and located just southeast of Midway. As the ocean churns, much of this floating trash ends up strewn on beaches throughout the Pacific.
Plastic pollution has altered life for the creatures of Midway, but it also affects ecosystems and human health on an international scale.
Eight million tons of plastic wash into the ocean each year, from microbeads to fishing gear to large containers. That plastic leaches hormone disruptors, carcinogens, and other harmful chemicals into marine ecosystems, contaminating seafood and even our own bodies.
Since plastic pollution comes from many sources, it is inherently difficult to prevent or control. It is the ocean’s albatross, a dirty dilemma with no easy fix. While citizen science initiatives, beach clean ups, recycling programs, plastic bag taxes, and international commitments to reduce marine debris have all shown promise, cleaning the ocean will require sustained commitment and action by governments and consumers alike.
Published in March, 2017, by the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.