Albatross at Midway: Battle 2

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

There is a battle going on at Midway’s Sand Island. It’s different from the great military battle of the Second World War. And, this one may not be winnable.

It’s a battle against an unpredictable enemy, one with unlimited reinforcements, which replenishes itself when cleared away, and which attacks from several fronts.

The enemy in this modern day war is plastic, and it comes to the island from the ocean, some of it simply washing up onto the shore.

Plastic bags and plastic bottle caps. Cigarette lighters. Plastic food packaging. Candy wrappers. Tooth brushes. Tossed into the sea from cruise ships.  Dumped into streams and rivers, offering a direct route to the sea.

Some face washes and body scrubs, even tooth pastes, contain tiny dots of plastic called microbeads that are able to pass through water system filters.  Before the law banning their use was passed in 2016, three hundred million tons of microbeads of plastic had been washed annually into waterways in the United States. They may be banned, but they are still floating around out there in the ocean.

Another, and inadvertent, source of plastic on the island is the Laysan albatross parent returning to feed his young chick. The albatross cannot know, but when he flies out to sea in search of food, there is a good chance that the highly nutritious liquefied oil he will carry back to feed his chick will be laced with some object – or multiple objects – of plastic that he ingested with his meal of squid or fish eggs.

What the albatross also cannot know is that he will pass the plastic on to his baby.

Examination of the boluses expelled by Laysan chicks to clear out undigested food prior to fledging has revealed the existence of plastic objects that were inserted during feeding.

According to EPA marine debris expert, Anne Marie Cook, an estimated ten thousand pounds of plastic debris is brought onto the island in this feeding manner.

Sometimes the plastic will cause no harm. But sometimes the chick will become ill.  Many die. Anywhere you see a big pile of plastic, but nothing else, that’s where an albatross has died, Dave Wolfe, the deputy manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge told author Carl Safina.

So you might ask why they don’t just pick it all up. Plastic is ubiquitous on Midway, Wolfe explained to Safina. If I picked up every bit of plastic I found on Midway, I would not do anything else. Even then, a new crop of it would appear with the next high tide.

As a solution, plans for cleaning up the ocean have been put forward. But none of the ideas could be implemented in any practical manner. No surprise there. I imagine it would be like trying to scrub an elephant with a toothbrush.

It also seems to miss the point. The ocean didn’t pollute itself with plastic. It wasn’t just an isolated spill. Oops. Let’s clean this mess up and go on our way.

People did this, and people are going to have to become involved in the solution.

As Aldo Leopold suggested, this is an ecologic ethical issue that will take a complete reversal of attitudes, from viewing the ocean as a source of entertainment and amusement to understanding that the sea and all its life are essential to our health and wellbeing. It will entail our giving up our exploitative behaviors.

(You can read Leopold’s concept of an ecologic ethic in my post of December 20, 2017.)

According to Leopold, an ecologic ethic, by encompassing all of life, is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence.

Can we limit our freedom of action? This film by Chris Johnson asks the same question:



5 thoughts on “Albatross at Midway: Battle 2”

  1. I think we need a new Department of the Gov’t…..Ocean Sweeper. It will have to be organized to clean up the plastic islands, ships designed to do nothing but that, jobs assigned for just that job, a Dept with officers, etc. That would be a tax i would gladly support!

    1. I like your idea, Barbara, except I have briefly read some of the ideas being proposed for sweeping the ocean, and the potential collateral damage to sea life and birds is enormous. We really have made a mess of things.

  2. This is such an important subject! Years ago I saw a video of sea creatures dying from ingesting plastic, and I can’t get the horrifying image out of my mind. Some of the worst offenders are cruise lines, dumping huge amounts of plastic waste into the sea instead of saving it to recycle when they dock.

    I have heard about two young men who invented a sea-cleaning device that costs very little and works well. I hope it’s being used and publicized.

    The albatross information is fascinating. Amazing birds!

    1. I’d be interested in knowing about the effective sea-cleaning device. The ones I’ve read about have not worked.

  3. I have read where the environmentalists have achieved a partial victory in identifying the owners
    of the fishing nets found drifting in the ocean. However, I do not see media reporting on what
    penalties have been slapped on those offenders. The masses of netting removed from the
    shorelines and at sea are being burned in the main garbage to power plant on Oahu. Those
    involved in the fishing or shipping business are driven by the need to maximize the corporate
    bottom line. Without strong enforcement measures, stopping the ever-growing oceanic garbage patch seems to sadly be a lost cause. The vast expanse of oceans do not lend themselves to
    continuous monitoring. The only workable method may involve satellite surveillance which would enable earlier detection of wrong-doers actions.

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