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New ‘battle of Midway’ over plastic

By David Shukman
BBC environment correspondent, Midway

On the coral atoll of Midway in the central Pacific – famous for America’s first victory over the Japanese fleet in World War Two – wildlife experts are facing a new battle against a rising tide of plastic waste.

The Midway Islands are home to some of the world’s most valuable and endangered species and they all are at risk from choking, starving or drowning in the plastic drifting in the ocean.

Nearly two million Laysan albatrosses live here and researchers have come to the staggering conclusion that every single one contains some quantity of plastic.

About one-third of all albatross chicks die on Midway, many as the result of being mistakenly fed plastic by their parents.

I watched as the deputy manager of the wildlife refuge here, Matt Brown, opened the corpse of one albatross and found inside it the handle of a toothbrush, a bottle top and a piece of fishing net.

Map. BBC
The gyre drives waste towards Midway

He explained how some chicks never develop the strength to fly off the islands to search for food because their stomachs are filled with plastic.

“It is disheartening to see such a monumental problem. It’s really going to take not just people in a refuge or people working with birds like this – it’s really a global effort to solve this problem.”

According to Matt Brown, the need for action is urgent because plastic waste adds to a list of existing threats.

“The plastic is just another, very large straw on the camel’s back that’s really endangering the future of these birds.”

Many albatrosses are found to have swallowed disposable cigarette lighters – which look remarkably similar to their staple food of squid.

Plastic hook (BBC/Mark Georgiou)

One chick has grown up with this hook in its mouth

Others become ensnared in plastic. We were alerted to one albatross chick with a large green hook fixed inside its beak. The beak itself had become deformed.

One of the experts here, John Klavitter, carefully extracted the hook and found a small plastic net dangling from it.

The net may once have held some fruit, hung on display in some distant shop, only to end up threatening the life of one of the world’s greatest sea-birds.

The staff here regularly try to clear up the plastic but the task is huge.

We filmed a clean-up operation on one short stretch of beach and after just 30 minutes there was a vast pile of fishing floats, bottles, plastic sheeting, toys, torches, and deodorant sticks.

Plastic collection (BBC/Mark Georgiou)

A relentless battle: Each tide brings a new swathe of waste

One challenge is finding every small piece of plastic – it’s often the tiniest fragments that cause most damage.

Another is maintaining morale as each tide or wind brings another load of plastic to Midway’s shores.

In theory the wildlife here enjoys a double layer of bureaucratic protection – lying within a wildlife refuge and a newly declared Marine National Monument.

But none of that counts for much if products designed to be cheap, durable and long-lasting are allowed into the oceans in the first place.

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