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Planet Earth

Cleanup Time on the High Seas

Albatross chicks collectively consumed more than four tons of plastic at Midway last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

By Isabelle GrocOctober 25, 2010 5:00 AM


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Although the Laysan albatross chicks of Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge live in the central Pacific, more than 1,000 miles from human civilization, their stomachs look like miniature garbage dumps, full of bottle caps, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters—even golf balls. A recent survey of the marine debris plaguing the island, home to the largest albatross colony in the world, is helping researchers understand the sources of this far-flung pollution. It is also pointing to simple ways to reduce the problem.

A 2009 pilot study (pdf) examined the types, sources, and amounts of beach debris on Midway Atoll. Preliminary results show that of all the items collected and identified from beach sites, 57 percent came from land sources and 43 percent were fishing-related gear and debris. The most common objects were beverage bottle caps and spacer tubes used in the oyster industry. Independent marine debris researcher Seba Sheavly, who coordinated the study, hopes that news of these findings might spur small but important changes in consumer behavior. “If people just became aware of the need to recycle bottle caps along with bottles, that would help tremendously,” she says.

The problem of pollution on the high seas extends far beyond Midway. In response, the nonprofit Project Kaisei, based in San Francisco, will launch an expedition this summer to the extensive floating garbage patch that collects in the center of a giant loop of currents known as the North Pacific Gyre. There, refitted fishing vessels will pick up trash in a coordinated cleanup effort. They will also experiment with collection techniques, gathering floating debris with nets and bringing it back to shore for recycling or conversion into fuel. “The long-term solution is to stop the flow of plastic into the ocean,” project cofounder Mary Crowley says. “But for now we are working with fishermen who have the boats, the equipment, and the knowledge to do ocean cleanups.”

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