Environmental Humanities Extinction

Albatross, plastic and the undoing of generations

In the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, at the far north west end of the Hawaiian Archipelago, lie a few tiny coral and sand islands encircled by a small reef. These little patches of dry land in the midst of a vast expanse of water and sky are Midway Atoll.

Each year, these islands provide breeding habitat for a range of bird species. For example, the largest remaining colonies of two threatened species of albatross – the black-footed and Laysan – are to be found here. Between a third and two thirds of the global population of each species call this place home for roughly eight months each year; tied to the land and engaged in an endless movement between egg and chick rearing duties and the all important search for food at sea.

We do not know with any accuracy how long these species have called this place home.

Like other colonial sea birds, they tend to preferentially nest in places with few or no terrestrial predators. For the longest time small islands have been perfect for this; at least until humans began introducing new species. It is likely that albatrosses once nested throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago, but this is no longer the case. Rats, cats, dogs, mongoose, and a range of other recently introduced species – alongside other forms of ongoing human disturbance – have now made most of these islands uninhabitable. (Although albatrosses can now also be found in small numbers on the island of Kauai, due in large part to the work of a few dedicated people.)

Fossil records indicate that recognisable albatross species have been winging their way across Earth’s oceans for at least the last nine million years. And so, millions of years before anything like the human species appeared on the scene, these birds were here. Reduced now to a few small pockets of land, they have continued their ancient way of life: moving between land, sea and sky, soaring effortlessly over vast distances each day, and on land courting, dancing and singing with each other to form the strong pair bonds necessary to successfully rear chicks.

Laysan Albatrosses – Midway Atoll
Photo Credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

But this ancient way of life is now threatened in new ways. On multiple different fronts, from introduced species to long line fishing, we are now undermining the possibility of the continuity of albatross generations – in short, we are pushing these species ever more closely towards the edge of extinction.

This is true even on Midway Atoll itself. Even here, on this piece of dry land that is about as far as it is possible to be from a continental landform and 1,200 miles from the nearest significant human population (in Hawaii), these birds are not safe. Even here, the toxins and detritus of human life are accumulating to do harm.

This is the part of the world’s oceans that has been called the North Pacific Garbage Patch by some. Others have called it ‘the seventh continent’. Whatever you call it, it is a vast and shifting expanse of ocean in which the average concentration of rubbish is significantly higher than normal. Within this area, plastic and other debris from all over the Pacific (and perhaps further afield too) collects in various densities, shaped not only by the movements of large currents, but also by smaller-scale oceanographic features.

Adult birds in search of food for their young collect these plastic items – mistaking them for food, or because they are entangled with favourite food items (like fish egg clusters). From here, they are delivered into the hungry mouths of waiting chicks where they accumulate to cause starvation, dehydration, and generally undermine the health and wellbeing of growing bodies.

The mass death of albatross chicks is simply staggering. Vividly captured in numerous photographs by Chris Jordan.

Chris Jordan – Midway: Message from the Gyre

As the bodies of young birds pile up, these species are placed at even greater risk of extinction.

Less than one hundred years of human ‘ingenuity’ – in the forms of plastics discovered or commercialised in the early decades of the 20th century – circulating through rivers and vast oceanic currents, to accumulate in the living bodies of albatrosses and play their part in the undoing of millions of years of evolutionary achievement.

All over the world, plastic is becoming a growing problem for birds and wildlife more generally. At this stage, it seems that the albatrosses of Midway are amongst the hardest hit. Laysan albatrosses in particular may “have a greater incidence, a wider variety, and larger volume of ingested plastic than any other seabird”.*1

But it is clear that Midway’s albatrosses are just an extreme case, by no means a unique one. And as time goes by, both here and in all of the world’s other oceans, plastic concentrations just keep on climbing. How could they do otherwise; the stuff never disappears!

Instead, plastics just break down into smaller size pieces (eventually into ‘micro plastics’) that allows them to enter and accumulate in smaller and smaller bodies, so that they might gradually impact upon a larger and larger range of living beings. And so, with the exception of those plastics that have been incinerated – to contribute to other toxic legacies – all of the plastics ever produced are still around in one form or another, ensuring that countless future generations of albatrosses, humans and others, inherit a growing problem.

It was Chris Jordan’s photographs that first alerted me to the situation on Midway. I have now written a chapter on this entanglement of albatrosses and plastics for my new book. The photos were first emailed to me in Australia by a friend in California. With the aid of the internet these images have circulated around the world. We need images like these. Images and stories that can travel far and fast: at least as fast as the plastics whose movements are powered by huge and relentless oceanic systems. We need stories that can reconnect people with the distant and ongoing impacts of their waste in a way that might make a difference for the future of generations of albatrosses and others.

With this in mind, I am very pleased to see that Chris Jordan and others are collaborating on a related film project that looks to be both visually stunning and heartbreaking (still in production).

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/25563376 w=500&h=281]

MIDWAY : a short film by Chris Jordan from Midway on Vimeo.

Of course, it is not just cigarette lighters, bottle caps and even ‘micro plastics’ that accumulate in albatross bodies. At the same time, a range of persistent organic pollutants – DDTs, PBCs and others – are also making their way through rivers, atmospheric systems and oceans. It seems that these toxins are also accumulating in the fatty tissue of albatrosses to contribute to eggshell thinning and increased embryo mortality as a result of impacts upon neurological development, endocrine function and cell growth.*2

The persistent organic pollutants of Midway don’t yet have their own photos or film (as far as I know?). They are certainly less visible – at least for now. But, these chemicals are the agent through which ‘we’ – a collective noun that some of us are far more present and complicit in than others – perpetrate an ongoing and sustained form of ‘slow violence’ against many of the world’s living creatures.

And so, alongside the urgent need to do something about all this plastic, we need also to pay attention to these less visible circulating harms.

*1 Auman, Heidi J., James P. Ludwig, John P. Giesy, and Theo Colborn. “Plastic Ingestion by Laysan Albatross Chicks on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, in 1994 and 1995.” In Albatross Biology and Conservation, edited by G. Robinson and R. Gales, 239-44. Chipping Norton, NSW: Surrey Beatty and Sons, 1997.
*2 Auman, Heidi J., James P. Ludwig, Cheryl L. Summer, David A. Verbrugge, Kenneth L. Froese, Theo Colborn, and John P. Giesy. “Pcbs, Dde, Ddt, and Tcdd-Eq in Two Species of Albatross on Sand Island, Midway Atoll, North Pacific Ocean.” Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 16, no. 3 (1997): 498–504.

Featured Image

Laysan albatross pair with egg
Photo Credit: David Patte/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

58 thoughts on “Albatross, plastic and the undoing of generations

  1. This is an excellent reportage and I wish there were more like it on WordPress. I live in a beautiful part of the world yet unfortunately many turtles, birds and sea life get tangled up in plastics and die slow and painful deaths on our not so pristine beaches.

  2. Thank you for this important article.
    It breaks my heart to think about the suffering of tiny chicks that have consumed plastics. Just heart breaking.

  3. Your words are informative, and powerfully protective as well, I hope. I wish video clips like the one you linked to this article were regularly broadcast on the telly. Is it even possible for all these plastics to end up either recycled or in landfills, even if each human deposits them appropriately? It is an awful mess we’re in—the innocents too.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I hope this makes people more aware of when they use plastics how if effects our carbon footprints. Bravo to you for writing this. Have you been to the Midway yourself?

    1. Hi there. I haven’t been to Midway. I really tried to get there for the book but there are no commercial flights so you have to charter a plane – which was a bit out of my price range. As the site is controlled by the USFWS, you also need them to approve your visit. I had to ‘settle’ for spending time with some of the albatrosses on Kauai – which wasn’t settling at all, they’re beautiful birds.

      Many of the same plastic issues are also visible on the bigger islands in the Hawaiian chain. There aren’t the same numbers of breeding birds there, so the tragedy takes a different form, but it’s still there. You can see one example here in the little clip ‘The Dirtiest Beach in the US’: http://plasticparadisemovie.com/media

  5. Humans are the worst of all the species. We’re the ones that are supposed to know the most, and yet we act with such disregard for other life, human or animal. The photo of the dead albatross made me sad.

    1. I agree completely. I volunteer with pit bull and other animal rescues, so I see the effects of all of this daily. It’s overwhelmingly sad, but it also gives me the inspiration to do more to help. There will always be idiots to clean up after. All we can do is try for the greater good.

  6. It’s awful that people can’t respect these animals enough to let them live without danger from our ignorance, best of luck with your book, well done for bringing this to everyones attention

  7. So horrible, what happens to these birds. We think global warming, toxic waste, and other more obvious examples are causing our environment to deteriorate, but in fact plastic is the big killer. What can I do to help?

  8. You are doing a great service by following this and writing about it, Thom. Have you submitted this article to Orion Magazine? We are so oblivious to the suffering of other living things due to the garbage we spew. Also wondering how much illegal dumping into the ocean is going on here or elsewhere.

      1. Your writing is exemplary, Thom and again, a topic dear to my heart. I ride my bike through a big development here and fortunately we have so many birds – I try to screen out any other noise to listen to their songs. The U.S. has recovered four species that were endangered that I can think of – the California Condor which I have seen at the Grand Canyon, the bald eagle, the whooping crane and the sandhill cranes which migrate through a preserve just a short distance from here. I was just reading in last week’s New York Times about the huge numbers of songbirds dying as they fly into high rises in Toronto. The high rises are built along the Don Valley Parkway which is a migratory route for these birds. We are so foolish and don’t even take into consideration other species when we build. Thanks for your writing.

  9. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been very interested in Jordan’s work and the effects of plastic since hearing about his photography a few years ago; it still blows my mind hearing about how much damage we cause unknowingly. I will be greatly looking forward to your book and future blog posts!

  10. A very moving article and film. In needs the action of the masses to do something about it and for change to happen. I am very conscious of how much rubbish even my household goes through each week and that multiplied by millions of other households is worrying and ultimately we cannot go on like this indefinitely. What is the answer? I don’t know but it needs to come from the top for society to sit up, listen and act. The amount of waste and pollution in our oceans is a disgrace and wildlife suffers as your excellent article clearly outlines.

  11. This is absolutely heartbreaking to see life die because of substances we use and throw away on a daily basis.
    Please help me spread the word about this campaign. It is called Can You Contain It? and aims to reduce the amount of single use disposables going into the landfill every single day by getting people to bring in their own reusable containers when ordering takeout.

  12. Wow. What an excellent, poignant piece on the destruction of wildlife caused by no other than the human race. It is so important to pass information like this on to others, and especially to the younger generations. While completely reversing the havoc we have already wreaked on the earth, we can still change our ways and approach to day-to-day life.Each person who complains about having to bring their own bags to the store (because of the “elimination” of plastic bags) should read your post and see Chris Jordan’s photographs. I had no idea the Albatross were in such danger; thank you for the enlightenment.

  13. Reblogged this on Chronicles of a Travel Addict and commented:
    This is an AWESOME post by Thom van Dooren about the Albatross that live in Midway Atoll. It is located in the North Pacific Ocean and has an alarmingly high rate of waste, earning itself the nickname “North Pacific Garbage Patch”. Adult birds mistake toxic debris, often mixed in with edible items, and unknowingly pass it on to their growing chicks. When their carcasses are found, they are stuffed with garbage, such as bottle caps, lighters, and so on.

    People need to PLEASE stop complaining about not having plastic bags given to you at the grocery store anymore! Plastic is a horrible material that will probably remain on the earth just as long as the cockroaches do.

  14. The rate at which human activities is reshapeing the entire earth landscape is tremendous and alarming. We need more people like you thom that have the slightest sympathy for other spices.

    Sometimes I cringe at the impact little things I do can have such a magnitude of effect on other species.

    Great piece of writing.

  15. Wow, this is rather eye opening. I had no idea they would intentionally ingest this type of thing. A sad reminder of our unbelievable carelessness. Hopefully an awakening also.
    Thank you for posting this, Thom. I’m happy to have found your blog.


  16. Less plastic, less plastic!! It is so sad how badly we are treating this earth…we’ve got a lot to learn. Thanks for posting this and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  17. Wonderful and informative article. I started researching more about ocean pollution and the “Great Garbage Patch” a couple of years ago, when we moved to the North Cape of Norway. I was astounded at the amount of trash, especially plastic, riddling our beautiful coastline. My attempt to make a dent in this horrific problem is a project called One Step at a Time http://experiencenorthcape.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/one-step-at-at-time-cleaning-up-the-coast/.

    Looking forward to following your blog and learning more.
    Thank you,

  18. Although I was a aware of the problem of plastics in the ocean and environment and try to do my best to limit my plastic consumption, your blog – both words and pictures – brings it home with furious impact. I’ve spent a few windy days beach cleaning in Cornwall in the UK, and it is pretty soul-destroying to find the plastic and rubbish piled up afresh each time. They should put these pictures up at supermarket checkouts, to make people think hard about using plastic bags. Thank you for a great and informative post.

  19. Wow. Thanks so much for sharing. It sickens me to think we are destroying our only home and a lot of its inhabitants at such a fast rate. We must work together to change this human behavior. Animals are unable to undo our bad behaviors. But we have the ability and we must do something if we wish to pass on this beautiful planet to the next generations.

  20. Thank you for your informative and emotionally engaging article. I remember a world before widespread use of plastic and I try to use what we used then:paper, stainless steel and glass. It is impossible to avoid plastic packaging however. That makes me so mad!

  21. What an intriguing read. The photos really seem over-the-top enough that, initially, it seems they could be staged for dramatic effect, but I know deep down they’re not. It’s just that the topic is so remote that many of us, I’m sure, don’t really have any solid concept of what the North Pacific Garbage Patch is actually like. I’ve heard about it but certainly don’t know many details , so thanks for providing more insight on this rather unfortunate problem.

    1. It is really hard to believe that the photos aren’t staged, but the photographer has said a few times that he doesn’t move anything at all. This is how he finds the birds. I’ve also seen a video showing the removal of plastic from a bird after death and it is just staggering how piece after piece – often with jagged edges – comes out of one small body. Thanks for the comment.

  22. Thank you for sharing this. Reading articles like this are a horrendous reminder of what humans do to the planet. Taking time to recycle whenever possible whether a company or an individual should be automatic, with no second thought.

  23. The first time I saw the deadly plastic albatross photos was in the work of David Liittschwager, and Susan Middleton:

    Archipelago: Portraits of Life in the World’s Most Remote Island Sanctuary

    Their photographic work was influential in the establishment of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument:

    I don’t think Mr Bush dwelled too much on the dead albatross images. Nor did many other notice them at the time.

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