Open Spaces: Discarded Plastics Distress Albatross Chicks

Discarded Plastics Distress Albatross Chicks

By John Klavitter, USFWS

The problem is … plastic.

Since the 1960s, discarded items made of plastic have been inundating the Pacific Ocean. This plastic marine debris is now reaching levels that affect all levels of the marine food chain, ultimately impacting humans and our planet.

Evidence of this is especially acute at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.

The refuge is a remote, semitropical atoll located in the heart of the North Pacific Ocean and home to an abundance of wildlife including three million seabirds. Midway’s isolation, lack of predators, protected status, and active resource management have aided in the atoll supporting such biological richness.

But that biological richness is increasingly being threatened.

A stroll through the seabird colony at Midway Atoll with 400,000 pairs of nesting Laysan albatrosses provides both a sense of beauty and amazement, but also horror because pieces of plastic litter the sand and pack the carcasses of dead albatross chicks.

chicks-debrisPlastic debris can harm albatross chicks. (Photo: USFWS)

Midway’s adult albatrosses soar effortlessly on the winds near the surface of the ocean approximately 1,000 miles to the northwest to the “Transition Zone” to catch food for their young. Parents alternate flying this distance weekly to reach the nutrient rich foraging grounds. Mainly at night, the albatrosses snatch up squid, flying fish eggs, and other marine life off the surface of the ocean.

Unfortunately, they also inadvertently ingest plastic items that are attached to egg masses or are mistaken as food.

Albatross parents return to Midway Atoll and regurgitate the food and plastic to their chicks. Over 90 percent of the approximately 320,000 Laysan albatross chicks that hatch each year on the Refuge contain plastic in the proventriculus and gizzard portions of their stomachs.

Healthy chicks are able to eventually cough up a bolus or pellet at about four months of age before they fledge. 

Chicks that perish on average contain twice the amount of plastic as the successful fledgling.

Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, and plastic toys are some of the most common identifiable objects that are observed.

dead-albatrossThe toll plastic can take on an albatross is very high. (Photo: USFWS)

An estimated 5 tons of plastic are fed to albatross chicks each year at Midway Atoll. Not only does the plastic occupy volume in the chick’s stomachs and lead to a greater chance of death by dehydration, but sharp plastics can fatally puncture portions of the digestive tract. Some of the plastics may also contain harmful toxins which can accumulate in tissues of the chicks, compromising their survival. The toxins attach to the plastics as they drift in the ocean.

The oldest known wild bird in the world is a Laysan albatross found at Midway Atoll named “Wisdom”. She is 61 years old and still raising young. Wisdom’s ancestors persisted for millions of years and her kind have persisted through time, despite natural change. Humans have created a global plastic problem in the Pacific that threatens Laysan albatrosses, the Pacific, and beyond.

The plastic that we observe in albatrosses at Midway Atoll is indicator how pervasive plastic persists in the Pacific and the need for change.

Laysan albatrosses are showing us that we need to increase public awareness on this problem and examine our lives to discover solutions to combat this plastic issue such ensuring proper disposal, recycling, and using cloth bags for shopping instead of plastic.

John Klavitter is Deputy Project Leader and Wildlife Refuge Manager at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge

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Last updated: June 21, 2012