Every year on Midway Island, albatrosses mistakenly feed five tons of plastic to their chicks. On this and other remote Pacific Islands, the carcasses of albatrosses whose stomachs are filled with brightly-colored man-made debris are not difficult to find. Instead of squid, many of the chicks are fed a steady diet of lighters, bottlecaps, pens and toothbrushes. While Midway is thousands of miles from any continent, much of the trash that ends up here begins its journey on land. One estimate holds that as much as 80 percent of trash comes from land-based sources.
Midway is roughly at the center of what is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of the Pacific Ocean that contains an estimated 150 million tons of plastic.
Albatrosses are not the only victims. Elsewhere, endangered leatherback turtles, which swim as far as 6,000 miles across the open ocean from their nests in Indonesia to Californian shores, mistake plastic bags for their favorite snack, jellyfish. Leatherbacks’ throats are lined with inward-pointing spines that prevent their intended prey from escaping. As a result, many leatherbacks suffocate and die every year from this inedible feast. A third of necropsies of dead leatherbacks since 1968 have revealed ingested plastic bags.
Other fish that feed on plankton poach tiny bits of plastic at the ocean surface that have been partially broken down by sun and waves. When larger fish eat them the plastic accumulates in their bodies. In one study 37% of pacific lanternfish, which ascend to the ocean surface to feed at night, had ingested plastic. Lanternfish are a major source of prey for tuna, swordfish and mahi mahi caught in Hawaii.
At least 267 different species are known to have suffered from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine plastic debris, including 86 percent of all sea turtles species, 44 percent of all seabirds, and 43 percent of all marine mammals.