How Plastic is Preying on Albatross Chicks

Unlike most procellariformes, albatrosses, like this Black-footed albatross, can walk well on land.Photo: Dr. James P. mcVey

There seems to be so much marine debris shifting in water and air with winds and currents and relocating far away from where it originally was implanted. A large amount of the marine debris is plastic, representative of nylon lines – the types used in making plastic bottles, polystyrene cups and others. Globally, the coasts are the main thoroughfares where this major hazard is visible. And of course it’s actually a problem caused by humans, because the hazard begins on land.

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii, washed up from the Great Pacific Garbage PatchPhoto: Algalita.org

Currently, there is no plastic that is biodegradable or can break down, and even if it could be broken down, it would be more difficult for that process to occur in the ocean. Yet even in a landfill, the plastic does not disappear. As catastrophic as oil spills are, it is the plastic litter that takes such a fateful toll on so many albatross chicks, especially on Midway Atoll, a secluded coral reef. Designated a wildlife refuge in 1988, it belonged to the Navy. When the Naval Air Facility Midway Island closed in 1993, birds became the feature crossing the skies.

Light-mantled Albatrosses regularly dive in order to feed and can dive to below 12m.Photo: Sabine’s Sunbird

An albatross chick at Northwest Hawaiian islands National monument, Midway AtollPhoto: Shealah Craighead

Indigestible Digestion

The albatross chicks eat what the adult albatross forages on, that is, flying fish eggs that are laid by fish in extended cords. The flying fish eggs, being cords, attach to items drifting along in the water. Albatrosses also forage for squid and fish. But some things that remain in the albatross’s stomach can’t be broken down. Some of this is the floating plastic they take in, returning with it to feed their young chicks. It is believed that 50% or more of what the albatross consumes is indigestible and causes intestinal tract problems.

Albatrosses range over huge areas of ocean and regularly circle the globe.Photo: Thomas Mattern

Larger Consequences Than We Realize

Anything thrown overboard from a ship can end up in the albatross’ intestinal tract. Currents in the water are not discriminatory when it comes to how they move or what moves in them. It would be great to see the actual movement of plastic marine debris, not just what is visible or what is coming up on shore. Studies are taking place to bring into view the marine debris we cannot see, that is the debris located on the seafloor, micro-plastics and small plastic particles.

This Black-browed Albatross has been hooked on a long-line.Photo: Fabio Olmos

The remains of this Laysan Albatross chick show the plastic ingested before death, including a bottle cap and lighter.Photo: Forest & Kim Starr USGS

What Can Be Done Now?

Recycling is always a key form of helping to reduce the amount of trash we throw away. Also, supporting groups that deal with issues surrounding pollution. And if items cannot be re-used, just making sure that the items are placed in the correct waste disposal container and area.

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