This photo is disturbing. It’s of a dead albatross chick at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific. Its stomach is filled with scraps of plastic. The bird was photographed where it was found, its stomach contents unaltered. Sights like this are common on the refuge where seaborne trash is killing birds and turtles wholesale. Albatross skim up bright plastic bits from the ocean surface and feed them to their chicks. The young birds starve, their stomachs filled with man-made scraps.
Don’t miss the three-minute movie trailer to a new documentary about how plastic is killing these birds, and doing so much other harm.
To me, a photo like this is a reminder to do as much as I can to minimize my use of plastic. It’s hard, but I try. The plastic you and I discard today will be around longer than you or me, our kids, and our great, great, great, great grandkids.
What you may not know
The trash in this bird’s stomach isn’t local. It comes from China, from Indonesia and the United States. It comes from us.
And we can do something about it. Some would argue we must.
Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, bags and bottles, soda cans that we discard on land make up most of the swirling mass known as marine debris. Rivers and storm sewers carry it to the sea, where abandoned boats and fishing nets add to the menace.
An estimated eight million tons of debris enter the ocean each year, outpacing efforts to remove it.
What’s scarier still: The global problem affects more than wildlife. Plastics have entered the human food chain, through the water we drink and the fish we eat. The impact on human health is not yet fully known.
We can take steps to curb it at the source. Buy fresh and local. Avoid excess packaging. Use reusable cloth bags instead of plastic bags. Dispose of waste responsibly. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
“Marine debris is one of the most pervasive and pernicious global threats to the health of the world’s coastal areas, oceans and waterways,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service deputy director Jim Kurth testified to a Senate subcommittee in May 2016. The 180 national wildlife refuges that protect ocean, coast or Great Lakes habitat know the problem firsthand.
Nearly every seabird on the planet now eats plastic. Fish are eating microplastics — tiny beads found in cosmetics, lotions and toothpaste. Toxic chemicals bind to microplastics, and fish swallow these, too. When we eat the fish, we also swallow the microplastics and the toxins.
“Everybody’s seen pictures of beaches strewn with plastic,” says Pete Leary, marine coordinator for the National Wildlife Refuge System. “But people in Portland or Washington, DC, generally don’t think of marine debris when they’re forgetting to put their trash in bins in a park.”
Tiny Midway Atoll Refuge has become a poster child for marine debris awareness. Why is that?
One reason is the atoll’s remoteness — 1,400 miles from the nearest city. “If you go to coastal California and see junk on beach, you think it probably came from Los Angeles or San Diego,” says Leary, who lived and worked on Midway for five years between 2007 and 2014. “But basically none of the stuff washing up is locally generated.”
Another reason: Midway’s location. It sits close to the gyre, a Pacific Ocean current that pulls ocean debris into the swirling mass known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. “All Hawaiian islands are impacted,” says Leary. An estimated 5 to 10 tons of debris washes up on Midway beaches each year.
And there is the atoll’s abundant wildlife. Nearly three million seabirds nest on Midway, including endangered Laysan ducks and the world’s largest colony of albatross. So it’s hard to miss plastic’s devastating impact on birds and animals.
Spread the word about the need to curb marine debris. For a heartbreaking look at the toll on Midway’s seabirds, see this trailer for the upcoming feature film “Midway” by photographer Chris Jordan. Or see CNN’s video “Plastic Island.”
Derelict commercial fishing nets are a particular menace. Snagged on offshore rocks and reefs, they entrap birds, seals and endangered sea turtles. Between 2006 and 2015, NOAA removed an average 37.7 metric tons a year of discarded nets from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Hauling the heavy nets out of the surf and off the beach is hard work. “We’re lucky we have lots of people helping to clean up,” says Joseph Schwagerl, project leader for six Hawaiian refuges, including James Campbell National Wildlife Refuge in Oahu, where he’s based.
Disposal is the next challenge. Remote islands must ship debris by barge to the mainland, where it often ends up as landfill — an imperfect fix that the next big storm could undo. Some people are exploring alternatives. One novel Hawaii program burns debris to create usable energy. Since 2002, the effort has generated enough electricity from more than 800 tons of derelict nets to power nearly 350 Hawaii homes for a year.
Take part in the next International Coastal Cleanup — the largest volunteer effort for our oceans — on September 17. Dozens of refuges and refuge Friends groups participate. Or plan a small cleanup yourself. Find out how from the Ocean Conservancy.
In the Florida Keys refuges, marine debris poses other cleanup challenges.
“When trash gets in the mangroves, which make up a lot of our shoreline, it’s virtually impossible to clean out,” says Kristie Killam, ranger for four national wildlife refuges in the Florida Keys; the refuges lie within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. That’s because much of the dense tangle of partly submerged roots is nearly inaccessible by land or boat.
“A lot of [the trash] is plastic,” says Killam. “A lot of it is Styrofoam. All of it’s going to be here for a long time. Key deer, birds and other wildlife wander the shorelines. On a daily basis they get entangled in the trash and accidentally ingest it too.”
Attempts to flee Cuba — 90 miles away — produce another kind of litter at Key West National Wildlife Refuge, a breeding ground for colonial nesting birds and sea turtles and a designated wilderness.
Abandoned Cuban “chugs” — homemade boats carrying hazardous fuels and oils — litter the Marquesas Keys, says Killam. “We have dozens there now and they can be an impediment to nesting sea turtles and young turtles leaving the nest. They also take away from the wilderness character of the refuge.”
Off Florida’s west coast at J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, debris cleanup efforts focus on discarded fishing gear. The refuge and several partners recently launched a “Clear Your Gear” campaign urging anglers to dispose of fishing line and tackle safely to prevent wildlife injury and entanglement.
Every Friday volunteer members of the Monofilament Crew paddle refuge waters in kayaks to remove fishing line from the estuary. The president of the “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, the refuge’s Friends group, heads the crew. In 2015-16, crew members collected 474 hooks, 320 lead sinkers, 164 lures, 138 bobbers and enough fishing line to fill a five-gallon bucket — the equivalent of 1.22 miles of line.
To reduce plastic waste, the refuge has stopped sales of bottled water (installing water refilling stations instead) and the use of plastic bags in the society’s nature store and gift shop.
Action: Carry reusable water bottles for a day at the beach, the ballpark and other places. While you’re at it, keep a reusable coffee mug at hand, too, instead of adding to the 25 billion Styrofoam cups we throw away each year.
Most of this article was released to the media by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
(Photo of the albatross: Chris Jordan)