19 November, 2019
From above, Midway Atoll appears out of the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean as a small oasis of land. Its white sandy beaches look full of life.
Yet on the ground, the coastline looks very different. There is plastic, pollution and death.
With almost no predators, Midway Atoll is a safe place for many kinds of seabirds. It is home to the largest colony of albatross in the world.
But Midway is also at the center of what researchers call the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a huge area of floating plastic collected by oceanic currents.
A recent study found that the area is collecting debris at a faster rate than scientists had thought.
Midway is covered with skeletons of birds that have brightly colored plastic sticking out from their stomachs. Bottle tops, toothbrushes and cigarette lighters sit in the centers of the remains. Sharp plastic pieces can also cut through birds' organs.
"There isn't a bird that doesn't have some (plastic)," says Athline Clark of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She oversees the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, the world's largest marine protection area. It protects much of the Hawaiian archipelago, of which Midway is a part.
"Papahanaumokuakea is both a biologically rich and culturally sacred place," Clark said. "The Hawaiians call it a place of abundance."
Ocean currents now bring an abundance of plastic and other waste materials from all around the Pacific Rim to the area. The trash includes both small particles of plastic and objects like huge fishing nets. These capture plants, animals and other debris while moving across weak coral reefs.
Clark said scientists estimate about 26,000 kilograms of debris washes up on this part of the island group each year.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Kelly Goodale lives and works on Midway. She says the plastic that washes up there each year is just part of the problem.
"Not only are our beaches getting it, but also our albatross will bring it and feed it to their chicks," Goodale said.
Albatross spend much of their lives at sea feeding. The birds fly thousands of kilometers across the oceans before returning to Midway each year to lay eggs and raise their young.
"We estimate about 5 tons (4.5 metric tons) of plastic being brought to Midway every year just by adult albatross feeding it to their chicks," Goodale said.
It is not just seabirds that are harmed by ocean plastic. Endangered Hawaiian monk seals and green sea turtles can die while trapped in plastic netting. Sharks and other predators eat smaller fish that feed on small plastic particles.
It is important to understand the relationship between the ocean, marine life and humans, Clark said.
She shared a Native Hawaiian expression: "Ma o ke kai pili ai kakou." It means, "The ocean connects us all."
I'm Ashley Thompson.
The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
oasis – n. a green, fertile area; something that provides refuge or shelter
predator – n. an organism that gets food by killing and eating other creatures
debris – n. remains of something broken down; remains
marine – adj. of ore related to the sea
archipelago – n. a group of islands
sacred – adj. considered holy
abundance – n. a large amount; wealth
coral reef – n. underwater structures made up of stony corals