Editor’s Note: This story is part of CNN’s “Vanishing” series. Learn more about the sixth extinction and get involved.
Shock, combined with a little wonder at the unnatural. That’s how I feel as I watch the knife slice through the sternum of a dead Laysan albatross.
Inside its ribcage: a sickening array of plastic.
A red bottle top from a well-known soft drink brand. A cigarette lighter. Or two. Long thin items I couldn’t begin to identify.
It looked like the bird had swallowed the contents of an entire trash can whole.
Yet this wasn’t because it dined on a refuse site. I was on Midway Island, in the remote Pacific Ocean, at least 1,500 miles from the nearest one of those. This disgusting and otherworldly sight exists because we’re throwing the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the oceans every minute. By 2050, a number of researchers expect the world’s oceans to contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
Matt Brown, from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, used to live on the island and is now our guide.
“Every single albatross in this landscape has been fed plastic,” he says.
Is it killing them?
The Laysan albatross, a vulnerable species for which the Midway Atoll refuge is home, depends on the oceans around it for food. Yet those oceans are packed with trash. Midway is itself on the edge of the North Pacific Gyre, or the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That’s where trash, most directly from the Pacific coasts of North America and Asia, swirls in global ocean currents and collects in a large area. Midway is near the center of the Pacific. According to Brown, it acts like “fingers of a comb,” collecting tons of garbage on its beaches. Billions of tiny – sometimes large – pieces of plastic find their way from land into the water supply and then into the oceans.
The problem for the Laysan albatross, like many other sea creatures, is that these plastic pieces are attractive: They look like food. So, every time we see an albatross on Midway swoop majestically into the ocean to catch its prey, it’s quite likely the bird is swooping up a bottle top or a lighter.
Is it killing them? I ask.
“It’s not good for them,” Brown tells me. “A piece of plastic isn’t nutritious. When they pick up a lighter thinking it’s a squid, that’s not nutritious. It’s another strike against a bird imperiled by so many other things man has done.”
This bird was once hunted because its bones made excellent tattoo implements. It lives on an island slowly being swallowed by storm surges and global warming.
‘It’s all bits of plastic’
Brown looks out across the flat expanse of Eastern Island, which used to be the main focus of the runways that the US military built here in World War II to fight the Japanese. “You see the birds in the air, the birds in the ground nesting, and you see the grass, so when you look at it from this angle, it’s like pristine landscape, void of the imprint of man.” He kneels. “When you get down and push the grass aside, pick up a handful and it’s all this bits of plastic.”
It’s become part of the geology here.
“You have the substrate that was here naturally,” he says “You have the construction from WWII, and then you have this thin layer of what the birds have brought in. It’s primarily plastics. Year after year, the chicks come to this island. Some of them don’t make it. Their bones and their feathers decompose, because that’s natural. What’s left behind is the plastic.”
And the problem for the albatross will just grow as we continue dumping plastic into the ocean.
Consider again that striking figure: By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, by weight.
So the Laysan albatross will probably be eating mostly plastic about 30 years from now.
Given they live about 50 years – months of which at a time they often don’t return to dry land – that means some of the birds we see now will grow up to see their diet change massively.
“Essentially seabirds are going extinct,” Chris Wilcox, from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, told National Geographic. “Maybe not tomorrow. But they’re headed down sharply. Plastic is one of the threats they face.”
The time of year in which we visited Midway is key in the annual cycle of the Laysan, 71% of whose population lives there.
In fact, we could fly to the island only at night because of how the birds swarm around the runway.
The dark, eerie world of Midway Atoll is, at times, a standing-room-only scene for albatross chicks. These huge birds stagger around in the dark, sometimes trampling over the corpses of those who do not live to be adults.
This vital time of year is called fledging. The young birds must learn to spread their wings and fly, or else they cannot feed on the ocean, and they’ll starve. Parents do what they can to feed the birds in their beginning stages, usually passing digested food from their stomachs, directly, beak to beak, into those of their chicks. Yet today, that parental assistance is often harmful. Plastic cannot be digested. Indeed, nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists on planet Earth.
How could we expect a fledgling digestive system to do what nature cannot?
And so, on the island, the chain of life, death and plastic is evident to behold. The birds swoop into the mulch of the ocean, pass the “food” on to their young, and then, around the island, slowly, the birds die off.
True, about a third of the birds are meant to die off as part of the survival of the fittest, according to local scientists. Yet, many oceanographers and wildlife researchers remain baffled as to why, in a refuge as tailor-made as this, the birds are not doing better. It doesn’t take a PhD to realize that having half your stomach full of plastic may have something to do with it.
This gracious bird, fluent in the air with its 6-foot wingspan and able to soar above the mess man has made, is seeing its one remaining sanctuary slowly swallowed up, covered in a thin layer of man’s casual indifference to the future.