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Marine Debris Threat Grows

The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents.
The unaltered stomach contents of a dead albatross chick photographed on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the Pacific in September 2009 include plastic marine debris fed the chick by its parents.
Credit: Chris Jordan
Marine debris covers a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.
Marine debris covers a beach on Laysan Island in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where it washed ashore.
Credit: Susan White, USFWS

Along coasts worldwide, marine debris fouls beaches and threatens wildlife that swallow or get tangled in discarded nets and floating bits of plastic, metal and glass. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with international partners to address the growing problem. In March the Service will take part in an international conference on marine debris in Hawaii that it hopes will inspire follow-up action.

"It's a terrible irony that the plastic we discard can wash up in the most remote and ecologically sensitive places on earth," says Bret Wolfe, marine program coordinator for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Judged by a human time scale, he says, "When it's plastic, it's always there. Plastic is forever."

Wolfe has seen firsthand the toll of plastic marine debris on Laysan albatrosses that nest on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, a remote island about 1,200 miles northwest of Honolulu. These seabirds scour thousands of ocean miles in search of food for their chicks. Along with fish, they scoop up plastic from "the Great Pacific Garbage Patch," an area where ocean debris accumulates. The stomachs of nearly all dead albatross chicks contain plastic — cigarette lighters, parts of toys and fishing paraphernalia — all fed to them by their parents. John Klavitter, acting manager of Midway Refuge, offers dramatic evidence of this on a video produced by Jan Vozenilek.

On the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, endangered Hawaiian monk seals sometimes become ensnared in "ghost nets" discarded by commercial fishermen. This National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration web site shows an example.

And on the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, whose more than 2,500 far-flung islands reach to the tip of the Aleutians, Pribilof Islanders work with fishermen to remove nets and other debris from fur seal rookeries, as part of a program that grew out of a refuge stewardship camp for kids. But cleanups often prove futile unless the refuge can first find and eliminate the source of the debris, says Refuge Manager Steve Delehanty.

Wolfe hopes research and documentation will boost awareness and drive changes in habits. "This is a problem that's only going to get worse unless we do something fundamentally different in the way we use plastic," he says. Suggestions include more recycling, proper disposal and less plastic consumption. One model: Beth Terry, an Oakland, California woman who has sharply curbed her use of plastic after seeing photos of plastic-laden albatrosses. For the past three years, she's blogged about her efforts at http://fakeplasticfish.com/

The March conference will include a Refuge System exhibit on the challenges marine debris pose to refuges and descriptions of clean-up projects. The conference is open to news media.

Learn more about the Fifth International Marine Debris Conference, March 20-25, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Learn more about Midway Refuge.
Learn more about the Hawaiian Islands Refuge.
Learn more about the Alaska Maritime Refuge.

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