The Trash at the Edge of the World

Removing 100,000 lbs of plastic and debris

Albatross chicks on the beach, NOAA

The birds are everywhere. They cover the fields, burrow under your feet, and fill the skies with their calls. Strolling along the broken paths and white sand beaches of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Monument, it’s hard to believe that you are still in a world inhabited by humans.

Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. USFWS

But then you notice an old hanger, several plastic toothbrushes, and hundreds of small unidentifiable pieces of multicolored plastic. At 1,300 miles from the nearest inhabited city, this isn’t simply the work of careless individuals. It’s evidence of a global problem that is threatening coral reef ecosystems, endangered species, and vulnerable sea bird colonies.

Photo: NOAA

What Makes the “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch”?

Every year, hundreds of thousands of pounds of trash wash up of the shores of the Hawaiian islands and remote atolls in the Pacific Ocean. Trash entering the ocean from Asia and the West Coast of America gets caught up in great swirling currents called gyres and collect in areas popularly knows as “garbage patches.” (Spoiler alert, they’re not really patches.)

The Trash Collects on Beaches and Coral Reefs

The Hawaiian Islands and Pacific atolls stretch across the gyre like a comb, collecting trash on their pristine beaches and delicate coral reefs.

The mountains of debris that wash up on these shores and reefs every day pose a lethal hazard for wildlife — including threatened Hawaiian green sea turtles and endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Plastic debris and fishing line are often ingested by seabirds leading to their starvation and death. Critically endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals — naturally curious — get entangled and trapped in abandoned netting. And at Midway and Kure Atolls, plastics, fishing gear and other marine debris can be found lining the nests of albatross chicks.

TOP: Kure Atoll staff freeing a turtle from debris. E. Opie/ Hawaii DLNR; LOWER LEFT: Monk seal entangled in netting. NOAA; LOWER RIGHT: Black footed albatross entangled in plastic. USFWS
Baby albatross tries to eat marine debris. Photo by Holly Richards, USFWS.

Surprisingly, Birds Bring The Plastic Too

More than five tons of plastics are carried on to Midway Atoll each year by adult albatross. The birds eat the plastics at sea and bring it back to the islands to feed to their chicks.

Decomposing Black footed albatross chick with a stomach full of plastic. Baby albatross are often fed plastic by their parents. Photo credit: Dan Clark/USFWS

“A lot of the plastic comes onto the island inside the birds’ bellies. They are foraging across the entire expanse of the North Pacific Ocean and collecting the plastic that’s floating out there. They are telling us our story, which is that we are not very good at taking care of our waste.”

— Kristina McOmber Biology Field Crew Leader, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial

The Cleanup Efforts

Each year staff and volunteers from U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collect tens of thousands of pounds of marine debris from beaches and reefs of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Crews of researchers and support staff scour the beaches for trash, dive along the reefs to remove snagged fishing line, and rescue wildlife who’ve become trapped and entangled.

LEFT: Diver clearing netting from coral reef. NOAA. RIGHT: The size of the plastic debris varies greatly. NOAA.
For years, the debris has been collecting in piles on Midway Atoll and Kure Atoll. Trips out to these islands are rare, and the cost of hauling literal tons of trash over a thousand miles is high.
Marine debris collects and is removed. Photo: NOAA.

Collecting 100,000 pounds of marine debris

This year, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Hawaii, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration teamed up to haul the stored debris back to Honolulu, where it could be processed into energy.

The team filled 12 shipping containers with 100,000 pounds of debris that had been collected from Midway Atoll and Kure Atoll. It took five days of sailing for the trash to reach Honolulu.

Worker shovels debris collected from Midway’s beaches and reefs into a shipping container. USFWS

“Marine debris is not something you can clean up just once; it takes a sustained effort over time,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Superintendent Matt Brown. “But by working with the state of Hawaii, Office of Hawaiian Affairs and NOAA, we can accomplish more than any one agency on its own to clean up marine debris and educate the public so we can prevent it from entering the ecosystem.

This marine debris removal effort represents a collaborative partnership between the USFWS, State of Hawai‘i DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Special thanks go to Nets to Energy Program, Schnitzer Steel Co. and Covanta Honolulu/H-POWER for their support of this project.

Want to dive deeper into the issue? Here are some additional resources to get you started.

  1. Learn about the incredible work done by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and get in depth information about the problem from the scientists who study it.
  2. For more footage of marine debris and the removal project: bit.ly/MarineDebrisPhotos
  3. Learn about Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary and the work they’re doing.

Papahānaumokuākea is cooperatively managed to ensure ecological integrity and achieve strong, long-term protection and perpetuation of Northwestern Hawaiian Island ecosystems, Native Hawaiian culture, and heritage resources for current and future generations. www.papahanaumokuakea.gov.

By Holly Richards, Public Affairs for USFWS in the Pacific Islands

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