By: Raymond Tony Chang Jr., Cornell University
The word “garbage,” as normally described, can easily mislead people into the thought of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch as a visible area of marine debris including items such as glass bottles and other large consumer products. This is simply not the case. Much of the mentioned debris actually refers to the even smaller bits of floatable plastics. Since much of the plastic is made up of material that are not biodegradable, much of the debris accumulate over the years – forming what we now know as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Over time, plastics break into tinier and tinier pieces that are not normally visible to the naked eye. This immense amount of marine debris is a major component to the destruction of oceanic creatures living in these areas. For example, loggerhead seas turtles tend to mistaken floating plastic bags for jellyfish, their favorite food (Rutledge). Similarly, mammals that live around the gyre such as the albatrosses have been found with six-pack plastic soda rings choking their neck (Rutledge). The effect of marine debris circulating these Hawaiian Islands in this extremely large gyre is obvious in its harm towards marine animals and other mammals that live in the area.
The Northern Pacific Subtropical Convergence zone of the GPGP lies exactly above the Hawaiian Archipelago. In fact, this strand of Island is home to nearly 3 million birds, including the world’s largest population of Laysan Albatross (Eidt, 2012). The Midway Atoll, lying in the middle of the Hawaiian Archipelago, is home to these Albatross birds. As the name suggests, the Midway Atoll is located roughly equidistant between North America and Asia. The location of the Midway is also, right in the center of the North Pacific Gyre. The Midway Atoll is a remote, unincorporated U.S. territory where the Battle of Midway occurred in 1942. This ring of volcanic islands and reefs is now home to millions birds, “including 250 different marine species that populate the nearby reefs and lagoons” (Eidt, 2012).
However, the beautiful Midway Atoll is now continuously destroyed by the 20 tons of plastic trash that float onto the shores of the islands each year (Chan, 2012). “Entanglement of plastics has been reported in 56 species of marine and coastal birds” (GreenPeace). Similarly, the numerous amounts of species living on these islands have all been greatly affected by the 90% plastic that come from land. “Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation”(Eidt, 2012). Recently, a two-year research funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency examined the death of albatross chicks and adults in this region. Studies show that albatross chicks die from either dehydration or starvation of food; however, albatross chicks that are found dehydrated had twice as much plastic in their stomach compared to albatross chicks that died from other reasons. Similarly, adult albatross often mistaken miniature plastic products such as bottle caps and lighters for food. “Hence, the birds swallow the junk, that perforates their stomach or blocks their esophagus or gizzard, leading to inability to eat, often leading to death” (Eidt, 2012). Not only are the albatross species affected, other studies suggested “up to 1 million seabirds choke or get tangled in plastic nets every year” (Eidt, 2012).
Unfortunately, since adult Laysan Albatross mistaken plastic for food, they end up feeding these broken up pieces of plastics to their young. The biggest threat is thus the ingestion of these plastics when it blocks the digestive track of albatross. “The world's plastic debris and other refuse is often digested by wildlife and kills an estimated 1 million seabirds per year, according to the United Nations Environment Programme” (Diamond, 2013). In addition, debris accumulated in the stomach can give the bird a false sense of fullness, resulting in the bird to stop eating and malnutrition. The ingestion of sharp objects can also damage the linings of the gut of these birds resulting in infection, pain, or even death. When animals ingest plastics, “it is possible that hazardous chemicals in the plastics may leach out and be absorbed into the animal’s body” (GreenPeace). The ingestion of these chemicals could potentially cause toxic effects to the Albatross resulting in severe pain within. Lastly, one study reported “90% of chicks surveyed had some sort of plastic debris in their upper gastrointestinal tract” (GreenPeace).
Will marine animals, specifically the local birds of the Midway Atoll such as the Laysan Albatross become extinct in the next few years? It is up to the leading world super powers of the century, the United States of America and China, to create economical bylaws in order to discontinue the illegal dumping and contamination of the oceans, as well as improving the nature and habitat of the Midway Atoll.
Chan, Casey. "Plastic Paradise: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch." Gizmodo. Gizmodo, 03 Nov. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
Diamond, Juli. "China Reports 66-Percent Drop in Plastic Bag Use." Worldwatch Institute. Eye On Earth, 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
Eidt, Jack. "Midway Atoll: The Plastic Plight of the Albatross." Pacific Voyagers. Jack Eidt, 25 Oct. 2012. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.
GreenPeace, . "Plastic Debris in the World’s Oceans." . GreenPeace, 02 11 2006. Web. 01 Oct 2013.<http://www.greenpeace.org/austria/Global/austria/dokumente/Studien/meere_Plastic_Debris_Study_2006.pdf>.
Rutledge, Kim, and Melissa McDaniel. "Great Pacific Garbage Patch - Pacific Trash Vortex." National Geographic Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Oct. 2013.