Laysan Albatrosses’ Plastic Problem

Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) are incredible birds. They have a wingspan of more than 6 feet, soaring vast distances without flapping their wings. They can go years without even touching land, live for more than half a century, and will often stick with a single mate for their entire lifespan.

But they have a problem: they are eating plastic dumped in the ocean. This collection of photos, taken by artist Chris Jordan on Midway Atoll, a group of islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, show the decomposing carcasses of Laysan albatross chicks on the islands—and the plastic that will remain there far longer than their bones.

Many birds accidentally eat plastic and other marine debris floating in the ocean, mistaking it for food. But the problem is intensified in Laysan albatrosses because of the way they catch fish, squid and other seafood: by skimming the surface of the water with their beak. Along the way, they accidentally pick up a lot of floating plastic, which they then feed to their chicks. Adults can regurgitate plastic they’ve swallowed, but chicks are unable to, so it fills up their stomachs.

The effects of plastic on the chicks hasn't been scientifically proven. It’s probable that it injures or kills the birds by cutting their stomachs or taking up space, making them feel “full” when they are starving. On Midway Atoll, many albatross chicks are killed by lead poisoning, making it hard to separate the effects of the plastic from that of the lead.

These photos makes a powerful statement about just how far-reaching the impacts of human consumption are, as they affect birds thousands of miles away, isolated in the Pacific Ocean.

You can help: pay attention to how much plastic you throw away—grocery bags, Styrofoam cups, water bottles, packaging—and try to use less. Here are five more simple things you can do for the ocean. And watch the trailer for Chris Jordan’s upcoming film about Laysan albatrosses on Midway Atoll.

Midway Atoll, where these photos were taken, is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest land.