Midway Atoll (CNN)Shock, combined with a little wonder at the unnatural. That’s how I feel as I watch the knife slice through the sternum of a dead Laysan albatross.
Inside its ribcage: a sickening array of plastic.
A red bottle top from a well-known soft drink brand. A cigarette lighter. Or two. Long thin items I couldn’t begin to identify.
It looked like the bird had swallowed the contents of an entire trash can whole.
Yet this wasn’t because it dined on a refuse site. I was on Midway Island, in the remote Pacific Ocean, at least 1,500 miles from the nearest one of those. This disgusting and otherworldly sight exists because we’re throwing the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic into the oceans every minute. By 2050, a number of researchers expect the world’s oceans to contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
This vital time of year is called fledging. The young birds must learn to spread their wings and fly, or else they cannot feed on the ocean, and they’ll starve. Parents do what they can to feed the birds in their beginning stages, usually passing digested food from their stomachs, directly, beak to beak, into those of their chicks. Yet today, that parental assistance is often harmful. Plastic cannot be digested. Indeed, nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists on planet Earth.
How could we expect a fledgling digestive system to do what nature cannot?
And so, on the island, the chain of life, death and plastic is evident to behold. The birds swoop into the mulch of the ocean, pass the “food” on to their young, and then, around the island, slowly, the birds die off.
True, about a third of the birds are meant to die off as part of the survival of the fittest, according to local scientists. Yet, many oceanographers and wildlife researchers remain baffled as to why, in a refuge as tailor-made as this, the birds are not doing better. It doesn’t take a PhD to realize that having half your stomach full of plastic may have something to do with it.
This gracious bird, fluent in the air with its 6-foot wingspan and able to soar above the mess man has made, is seeing its one remaining sanctuary slowly swallowed up, covered in a thin layer of man’s casual indifference to the future.