Mid­way is home to wildlife — and piles of deadly plas­tic

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - OBITUARIES - By Caleb Jones

MID­WAY ATOLL, North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands — Fly­ing into the un­in­hab­ited North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands, Mid­way Atoll ap­pears out of the vast blue Pa­cific as a tiny oa­sis of co­ral-fringed land with pris­tine white sand beaches that are teem­ing with life.

But on the ground, there’s a dif­fer­ent scene: plas­tic, pol­lu­tion and death.

With vir­tu­ally no preda­tors, Mid­way is a haven for many species of seabirds and is home to the largest colony of al­ba­tross in the world.

But Mid­way is also at the cen­ter of the Great Pa­cific Garbage Patch, a vast area of float­ing plas­tic col­lected by cir­cu­lat­ing oceanic cur­rents. The Hawai­ian Is­lands act like a comb that gath­ers de­bris as it floats across the Pa­cific. A re­cent anal­y­sis found that the patch is ac­cu­mu­lat­ing de­bris at a faster rate than sci­en­tists pre­vi­ously thought.

Mid­way is lit­tered with bird skele­tons that have brightly col­ored plas­tic pro­trud­ing from their de­com­pos­ing bel­lies.

Bot­tle caps, tooth­brushes and cig­a­rette lighters sit in the cen­ters of their feath­ery car­casses.

“There isn’t a bird that doesn’t have some (plas­tic),” said Ath­line Clark, the Na­tional Oceanic and At­mo­spheric Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s su­per­in­ten­dent for Pa­pa­hanaumokua­kea Ma­rine Na­tional Mon­u­ment, which Mid­way is part of. They “fill their bel­lies up with plas­tics in­stead of food and even­tu­ally either choke or just don’t have enough room for ac­tual nour­ish­ment and per­ish.”

Sharp plas­tic pieces can also per­fo­rate their in­testines and esoph­a­gus.

Pa­pa­hanaumokua­kea, which quadru­pled in size un­der Pres­i­dent Barack

Obama in 2016, is the world’s largest ma­rine con­ser­va­tion area and was in­scribed in 2010 as a UNESCO mixed World Her­itage site.

“Pa­pa­hanaumokua­kea is both a bi­o­log­i­cally rich and cul­tur­ally sa­cred place,” Clark said. “The Hawai­ians call it a place of abun­dance, or aina momona.”

But cir­cu­lat­ing cur­rents now bring an abun­dance of plas­tic and other trash from all around the Pa­cific Rim to Hawaii’s beaches. The de­bris ranges from tiny mi­croplas­tics that nearly ev­ery an­i­mal in this ma­rine ecosys­tem in­gests to huge fish­ing nets that gather plants, an­i­mals and other de­bris while bull­doz­ing across frag­ile co­ral reefs.

“The es­ti­mates are that there’s about 57,000 pounds of ma­rine de­bris that washes ashore within this part of the archipelag­o an­nu­ally,” Clark said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice bi­ol­o­gist Kelly Goodale lives and works on Mid­way, the site of a de­ci­sive World War II bat­tle, and said the plas­tic that washes ashore there each year is just part of the prob­lem.

“Not only are our beaches get­ting it, but also our al­ba­tross will bring it and feed it to their chicks,”

Goodale said.

Al­ba­tross spend much of their lives at sea feed­ing and fly­ing thou­sands of miles across the oceans be­fore re­turn­ing to Mid­way each year to lay eggs and raise their young.

“So we es­ti­mate about 5 tons of plas­tic be­ing brought to Mid­way ev­ery year just by adult al­ba­tross feed­ing it to their chicks,” Goodale said.

The al­ba­tross tend to seek out squid eggs that at­tach them­selves to float­ing pieces of plas­tic, which is why so many birds are eat­ing the ma­te­rial, Clark said.

And it’s not just the seabirds that are harmed by ocean plas­tic. En­dan­gered Hawai­ian monk seals and green sea tur­tles can die while en­tan­gled in plas­tic nets. Sharks and other apex preda­tors eat smaller fish that feed on mi­croplas­tic. Whales drag fish­ing line and buoys be­hind them dur­ing their long mi­gra­tions across the world’s oceans.

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the oceans, ma­rine life and hu­mans, Clark said.

She shared a Na­tive Hawai­ian proverb: “Ma o ke kai pili ai kakou.” It means, “The ocean con­nects us all.”

CALEB JONES/AP

Plas­tic, pol­lu­tion and death lit­ter Mid­way Atoll, a haven for wildlife, as a green sea tur­tle rests on a beach Oct. 15.

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