Plastic in Remote Places

The thing about the ocean is that everything is connected. The thrill of understanding these connections is one of the things that pushed me into the field of marine conservation. The marine ecosystem is confusing, complex, and complicated. These things make it fascinating, but also really difficult to protect.

Plastic moves in the ocean. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Trash that washes up on a beach can be local, but it can also come from all around the world. This is most evident on remote, uninhabited islands.

Baby Albatross on Midway Island Photo: BBC

The first such island I learned about is Midway Island. Off the end of the Hawaiian Islands, Midway houses a large albatross nesting population, and a small Fish and Wildlife research station. During WWII it was an important military outpost, but today it is little more than a bird rookery, and it is covered in plastic. Other remote areas in Hawaiian island chain also see high rates of plastic pollution. Hawaii sits within the North Pacific Gyre, a byproduct of the Pacific currents, which concentrates plastic and other debris. The North Pacific Garbage Patch (within the North Pacific Gyre) is probably the most famous gyre, owing to its discovery and publicity by Captain Charles Moore (Algalita). But the pattern of currents that creates the gyre exists in all of the worlds major ocean basins, and corresponding garbage patches have been discovered in the South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

Global gyres & garbage patches Photo: National Geographic

Remote and uninhabited islands in these gyres also suffer from high rates of plastic pollution. The Midway Island equivalent in the South Pacific is Henderson Island. About 3,000 miles from any major metropolitan area. A recent survey of the island suggest that it has accumulated 38 million pieces of plastic (17.6 tons). The island is only 14.5 square miles.

In these remote locations, plastic can be particularly dangerous. Islands have very high rates of endemism (animal species that only exist in one location on the planet), and are already under threat from sea level rise, climate change, and ocean acidification. Cleanup efforts are basically nonexistent because of the remoteness of the locations, and there is little funding to go and clean up beaches that nobody ever sees.


Read about Kamilo Point (aka: the Plastic Beach) here

Learn more about Henderson Island here


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