The Plastic Plight of the Midway Island Albatross

By: Mae Bowen

Many of us have only heard of the Midway Islands in regard to the Battle of Midway, one of the most important battles of the Pacific Campaign in World War II.  However, the Midway Atoll, a United States territory located in the Pacific Ocean equidistant between North America and Asia, is also home to the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, designated in 1988.  The atoll is composed of a ring-shaped barrier reef and many sand islets. Sand Island and Eastern Island, two of the more significant pieces of land, provide a habitat for millions of seabirds.  These seabirds are in grave danger due to specific human activities.

Specifically, the atoll is home to a large percentage of the world’s population of the Laysan Albatross and the Black-footed Albatross.  Each bird species has carved out its own particular habitat on the islands and over 3 million birds live there in total.  The atoll is even home to rare seabirds, like the Short-tailed Albatross.  The Short –tailed Albatross, or “Golden Gooney,” is endangered, with only 250 pairs remaining in the world today on a few Japanese islands.[1]  The atoll is also home to a variety of marine species, including the Hawaiian Monk Seal, Spinner Dolphins, and the endangered Green Sea Turtle.

The atoll environment suffers greatly from human interference including invasive exotic plants, lead paint on buildings and the destruction of the reefs to create a port.  However, the greatest threat to the natural ecology of the island comes in the form of pollution, specifically marine debris from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consisting mostly of plastic.  Though the sea turtles and monk seals wind up consuming the plastic debris, the bird population is by far the most affected.  Albatross chicks ingest the brightly colored pieces of plastic, mistaken for marine animals like fish and squid, and are not able to regurgitate them having not yet developed that reflex.  Tens of thousands of Albatross chicks die each year due to the washing up of plastic on the shores of the Midway Islands. [2] According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, “One study found that 97.5% of chicks had plastic in their stomachs.” [3] This is an alarming issue that urges action, not only for the natural life on the islands, but in respect to the reduction of the garbage patch in general.

Many “clean up” machines have been proposed over the years, though they rarely measure up to the task.  The constant motion of the ocean, coupled with the sheer scope of the plastics problem, with many “garbage patches” in nearly every body of water around the world, means that these machines barely make a dent in the amount of debris in the earth’s bodies of water.[4]

Therefore, in order to combat this environmental issue, we must alter our consumption of plastics and other debris, as well as the science behind their formation.  Plastic takes years to degrade fully, though it breaks into small pieces rather quickly.  This contributes to the ease with which it spreads across the globe and is ingested by various animals.  So, finding ways to improve the biodegradability of plastics to make a material that can actually “disappear” would be a step in the right direction.  Additionally, the one surefire way to reduce the amount of plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other bodies of water is to reduce our consumption of it.  If we use and discard less plastic, inevitably, less plastic will end up floating into otherwise pristine habitats.  Today, we use billions of plastic bottles and bags, not to mention packaging, in the U.S. alone.  This is on track to grow exponentially without action.  Buying fewer products packaged with plastic and utilizing reusable bottles and bags are two small ways we can reduce plastic waste.  We can also demand that producers of plastics follow the life of their product and provide for its safe disposal. Organizations like the Plastic Pollution Coalition aim to help individuals and businesses to do just that.[5]

We can even lobby for legislation, such as bans and fees on disposable plastics. [2] For example, some cities in the U.S., such as Washington, D.C., have enacted legislation which mandates retailers to charge for the use of plastic bags, which encourages consumers to utilize reusable products. Finally, raising awareness of the scope of the plastics problem, and its impact on animals such as the birds of the Midway Islands, on a global scale, is of the utmost importance.  We can never hope to combat this alarming environmental issue without first educating the public.  Chris Jordan, a founder of The Midway Project, has the right idea.  He and his film crew are embarking on a journey to document the impact of plastic waste on the bird population of the Midway Islands and subsequently educate people around the world about this environmental crisis. [6]Their work is a call to action for people across the globe to be more cognizant of their use of plastics, which will ultimately help reduce its impact on fragile ecosystems like that of the Midway Atoll.


Mae Bowen, a sophomore at Emory, is a Political Science and Environmental Sciences double major.  Her academic interests include international environmental policy and advocacy, conservation, energy policy in the U.S., and global health.  In the past, Mae has interned with Organizing for America and the Environmental Protection Agency.  She intends to attend law school after she graduates in 2016 and pursue a career in political communications, science writing, and/or environmental law.

[1] Phil Palmer,“THE GOONEY BIRDS OF MIDWAY ATOLL,” accessed on October 28, 2013.

[2] Adam Pasick, “Victims of the Pacific Trash Gyre,” Accessed on October 28, 2013.

[3] The Monterey Bay Aquarium, “Laysan Albatross & Plastics,” Accessed October 28 2013.

[4] Manuel Maqueda, “Those Crazy Plastic Cleaning Machines,” Accessed on October 14, 2013.

[5] Plastic Pollution Coalition, “Mission and Goals,” Accessed on October 14, 2013.

[6] Chris Jordan, “Midway,” Accessed on October 14, 2013.

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