Oceans of junk breed death


MIDWAY ATOLL -- The albatross chick jumped to its feet, eyes alert and focused. At 5 months, it stood 18 inches tall and was nearly fully feathered except for the downy fuzz that fringed its head.

All attitude, the chick straightened up and clacked its beak to scare off a visitor, then rocked back on its legs and dangled webbed feet in the air to cool them in the afternoon breeze. It gave the impression of reclining in a lounge chair.

The next afternoon, the chick ignored passers-by. Its wings drooped, too heavy to lift in the hot sun. Only a month from first flight, the bird flopped on its belly, its legs splayed awkwardly. A few hours later, it was dead.

John Klavitter, a wildlife biologist, turned the chick over and sawed into its belly with a knife. With one gloved hand, he pulled out a yellowish sac - its stomach - and picked through its contents. Out tumbled a collection of bottle caps, red, blue and orange; a black spray nozzle; part of a green comb; a white golf tee; and a clump of tiny dark squid beaks ensnared in a tangle of fishing line.

"This is pretty typical," said Klavitter, stationed at the atoll for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We often find cigarette lighters, bucket handles, toothbrushes, syringes, toy soldiers - anything made out of plastic."

The tide of plastic debris, remnants of thousands of items used in everyday life, has spread throughout the world's oceans, posing a lethal hazard to wildlife.

It even laps ashore here, one of the most geographically remote places in the world, a coral island whose strategic location halfway between North America and Japan made it the site of a famous World War II battle. There are no landfills, no industrial centers, no fast-food joints with overflowing trash cans. The debris picked up by albatross comes from the high seas.

Midway's isolation makes it ideally suited as a major seabird rookery, especially for the Laysan albatross. Chicks remain vulnerable on land for their first six months, dependent entirely for nourishment on parents that forage at sea and return with high-calorie takeout: a slurry of partly digested squid and flying-fish eggs.

That regurgitated payload flowing down chicks' gullets now includes Lego blocks, clothespins, fishing lures and other pieces of floating plastic that albatross mistake for food.

Sharp shards of plastic can perforate stomachs. Large pieces can block the gizzard or esophagus. The sheer volume of plastic can leave insufficient room in the stomach for needed food and liquid.

Of the 500,000 albatross chicks born here each year, about 200,000 die, mostly from dehydration or starvation. A two-year study showed that chicks that died for these reasons had twice as much plastic in their stomachs as those that died from other causes.

The atoll is littered with decomposing remains, grisly wreaths of feathers and bone surrounding colorful piles of bottle caps, plastic dinosaurs, checkers, highlighter pens, perfume bottles, fishing line and small Styrofoam balls. Klavitter has calculated that albatross feed their chicks about 5 tons of plastic a year at Midway.

Albatross fly hundreds of miles to scour the ocean surface for food for their young. Their flight paths from Midway often take them over what is perhaps the world's largest dump: a slowly rotating mass of trash-laden water about twice the size of Texas.

Technically, it is the North Pacific subtropical gyre. Informally, it is known as the Eastern Garbage Patch, located halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii. It's an area of slack winds and sluggish currents that collects flotsam whirling around the Pacific, much like foam piling up in the calm center of a roiling hot tub.

Curtis Ebbesmeyer has been studying the clockwise swirl of plastic debris so long, he talks about it as if he were tracking a beast.

"It moves around like a big animal without a leash," said Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer in Seattle and leading expert on oceanic currents and marine debris. "When it gets close to an island, the garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic."

Nearly 90 percent of floating marine litter is plastic - supple, durable materials such as polyethylene and polypropylene, Styrofoam, nylon and saran.

About four-fifths of marine trash comes from land, swept by wind or washed by rain off highways and city streets, down streams and rivers, and out to sea.

The rest of the debris comes from ships, much of it synthetic fishing nets, lines, floats and other gear that is jettisoned illegally to avoid the cost of proper disposal in port. Some of it is spewed from cargo ship containers that are ripped open and fall overboard in stormy seas each year. One ship heading from Los Angeles to Tacoma, Wash., disgorged 33,000 blue-and-white Nike basketball shoes in 2002. Other loads lost at sea include 34,000 hockey gloves and 29,000 yellow rubber ducks and other bathtub toys.

The debris can spin for decades in one of a dozen or more gigantic gyres around the globe, only to be spat out and carried by currents to distant lands.

Albatross are by no means the only victims. An estimated 1 million seabirds choke or get entangled in plastic nets or other debris every year. About 100,000 seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, other marine mammals and sea turtles suffer the same fate.

Kenneth R. Weiss writes for the Los Angeles Times. For the full-length article and the first three parts of the series, go to baltimoresun.com/oceans.

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