New Hope for North Pacific Wildlife (continued).

Story and Photographs by Meghan E. Marrero

Figure 11: Fat nudibranch.
Figure 12: Green sea turtle. Photo by Carlie Wiener.
Figure 13: Large fishes dominate the reef.

Back on land in the afternoon, the surroundings are still mesmerizing. The blues of the water are stunning grades of azure, the beaches powdery white. While sitting on the beach gazing into the distance, I am startled by a smooth black head popping out of the water—make that two! A mother Hawaiian monk seal (`ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or “dog that runs in rough waters”) arrives with her pup, cruising close to the shoreline, suspiciously eying the two-legged mammals on the beach. Within a few minutes, the pair has found a solitary sandy spot and the pup is nursing. When the pup gets his fill, he flops toward the water for a swim. His mother gives him a little autonomy as she takes a much-needed rest, all the while keeping an eye on her precious baby. Around the bend, on Turtle Beach, the honu, Hawaii’s native green sea turtles, are resting on the sand and soaking up some rays. On an island dedicated to conservation, all of these animals are given their space. We watch from afar, lucky to get a glimpse of their world. In many ways, Midway is a perfect place to raise a chick, or pup, as the case may be. Its remote location should make it protected and pristine. If you look more closely, however, humans are impacting these species and countless others, and have for a long time.

Figure 14a & b: Mama and pup: monk seals cruise by.
Figure 15: Nursing on the beach. Photo by Carlie Weiner. Figure 16: Turtle Beach

Since the first Western identification of the atoll in the mid 1800s, it has served many purposes. It was first a telegraph station, through which President Theodore Roosevelt transmitted the first message around the world. It was a stop on route to the Orient for clipper ships, which catered to rich and famous passengers. Perhaps most famously, Midway was a strategic military base. The atoll is probably best known from the historic Battle of Midway, which took place in June of 1942. Brave young men on their first trips away from home crouched in rudimentary shelters dug into the ground. They waited, knowing the Japanese were coming for them, and listened to bombs and birds whistling overhead. The battle they won was considered a turning point of World War II in the Pacific, an important step toward victory. Midway’s location made it an important military base during the Korean, Vietnam, and Cold Wars. The atoll was controlled by the Navy until 1997, when it was handed over to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Figure 17: Battle of Midway Memorial with albatross chicks.

While the Midway of today is all about protecting the animals, scars of all former human uses remain. When snorkeling on the reef, I see pieces of leftover naval infrastructure. The bright yellow canaries that flit along the ground outside my barracks window were imported as pets during the Commercial Pacific Cable Company days. The scurrying mice and scaling lizards are also non-natives. The island is dominated by plants that were brought in by humans, including palm trees, ironwoods, and Verbesina. While some of the invasive plants have become part of the animals’ habitat, others threaten it.

Figure 18: Infrastructure on the reef.
Close observation reveals albatross chicks with drooping wings, a sign of lead poisoning. These babies munch the chipped lead paint cracking off abandoned buildings from various points in the island’s history, and even a century later, are still affected. They won’t survive to adulthood. The Navy’s handover of the atoll was smooth, but also involved much clean-up. The military removed many toxic chemicals including PCBs and DDT, although some still remain beneath the beaches. They also got rid of underground storage tanks and capped landfills. Another naval victory on Midway was the eradication of rats, which decimated populations of ground-nesting birds including several species of petrels. These petrels are bouncing back, slowly but surely.

Figure 19: Dilapidated buildings lead to lead poisoning in chicks.

It is hard to believe, when gazing at a landscape dominated by chicks, but the albatross are also still recovering. In the early 1900s, the population was decimated, poached for feathers and for the albumin in their eggs, which was used for developing photographs. The poaching was halted, but then many birds were lost to telephone lines and other communication and electrical wires. Those lines have since been removed. By looking around, it is obvious that the birds are coming back, but their populations are still in only partial recovery. These seabirds and many others are affected by longline fishing, oil spills, and countless additional threats.

The picturesque landscape of the three Midway Islands is marred by ubiquitous marine debris. On the beautiful beaches and rocky wave breaks, I see countless fishing floats, huge piles of nets and line, toothbrushes, water bottles, toys, X-Acto knives, and even a computer monitor. I see monk seals lying next to eel traps that can catch their cute faces, and albatross chicks sitting next to fishing nets whose tentacles seem ready to ensnare the birds’ long webbed feet. I sit 6,000 miles from home and 2,500 miles from the nearest continent, and look at garbage. No place on Earth is beyond our dangerous reach.

Figure 20: Albatross chick rests next to a marine debris pile.
Figure 21: Monk seal pup on a debris-filled beach.
Most upsetting are the dead and rotting bird carcasses. While not every chick can be expected to survive to adulthood, it is obvious that the marine debris is contributing to deaths. Decomposing birds reveal intact and easily identifiable plastic pieces amid the carnage, including cigarette lighters and bottle caps. These items were fed to them by their parents; debris collected at sea and regurgitated into the mouths of the chicks. Although I cannot see the changes in this place with my own eyes, I know that the reefs and birds are being affected by the planet’s changing climate. Habitats are changing; the ocean is acidifying. Many of these changes can be attributed to our human activities. Land and sea are infinitely connected.

Figure 22: Decomposing bird reveals human impacts.

But reflection on the history of this beautiful place, which came close to destruction several times over the years, is encouraging. After all, the toxins have been cleaned up, the land redeemed, and the battle against the rats won. The entire area surrounding Midway and all of the Kupuna (ancestor) islands is now part of the Papah naumoku kea Marine National Monument, which protects 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean (105,564 square nautical miles) around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands a larger area than all of the National Parks combined. The Monument protects the important cultural and ecological resources and will ensure that ongoing conservation studies will continue.

However, marine debris and climate change are two new battles to be fought. These are major global problems and challenges; we must attempt to address them and redeem ourselves for our mistakes. Looking at this far-away beach with human scars, I know that we have a long way to go, but past victories are inspiring. Seeing an albatross nuzzling his fat, healthy chick, or being sidled up to by Laysan ducks inspires hope. Like the ocean, there is an ebb and flow. Like the Earth, there is destruction and renewal.

Meghan E. Marrero, Ed.D. is the Director of Curriculum at U.S. Satellite Laboratory, Inc., and president of the New York State Marine Education Association (NYSMEA). She holds a B.S. in biological science from Cornell University and earned her master's and doctoral degrees from Teachers College, Columbia University.  Her research interests are in teacher education and in improving environmental literacy of teachers and students. Meghan traveled to Midway Atoll as a part of the Papah?naumoku?kea 'Ahahui Alaka'i (PAA) program sponsored by NOAA, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Hawaii.

Figure 23: Midway dawn.
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