The winter crew has been on Kure for about two months. Every morning we are greeted by the sun burning over the Eastern horizon. But a couple weeks ago we were, instead, awoken by the glare of lights on the Western side of the island. If you regularly read about Kure you know that the appearance of a ship outside of our isolated lagoon is a rare event. The ship carried a group of people who traveled fifteen hundred miles from Honolulu to collect the trash that washes up on Kure’s beaches every day. Our atoll was their first stop, and they removed 4,252 kg (9, 355lbs.) of net and lines from Kure on October 14. These were piles of debris that DLNR and the NOAA monk seal teams had collected over the last year. They also took the 17′ Japan tsunami fishing boat up on the north tip of Green Island. And, still, the NOAA crew would continue along the chain of islands that make up the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to collect more trash and marine pollution throughout Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
We find bits of trash everywhere we go on the island. It washes up on the beaches or is carried inland in the stomachs of birds. Bits of plastic is dropped, spit out, or left as perverse grave markers when birds die and decompose leaving brightly colored curios of urban life intermixed with their feathers and bones. Last week we found a critically endangered Laysan duck with a plastic ring around its neck. It was one of those rings you see around gallons of milk. Our scheduled treatment of weeds was somewhat interrupted that day as members of our team tried tracking the duck, an older female, making sure her foot didn’t also get trapped in the ring in her attempts to remove it from around her neck. Luckily no intervention was needed; she was able to remove the ring herself. In this case, the ring was not too tight, but we have all seen the images of animals that get entangled in plastic rings and containers that they aren’t able to get themselves out of. More often than not the migratory birds that show up on Kure with plastic in their systems as well as an unknown number of birds and other wildlife die in derelict fishing nets, lines, and other entrapment hazards before we can find and help them.
Ironically, the trash we find here is one of the best representations of how Kure is connected to everyone on the planet. It’s easy to see this atoll as an island ecosystem that is worlds apart from major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Honolulu, or Tokyo. By turning Kure into a sanctuary for wildlife, we try to protect the biodiversity that the sanctuary houses from harmful effects of urbanization. The continued growth of cities has devastating effects on the environment around them, but they have pretty strong effects on Kure too.
The marine plastic pollution that litters the beaches here is a daily reminder to us that Kure is part of a global ecosystem, one we can’t protect without the help of everyone. Kure may feel oceans away from you as you sit reading this but it isn’t. Your daily life choices can help Kure. Reducing plastic use in today’s society is hard when most companies double and triple wrap products in excessive plastic because it’s cheap and easy to make. But we still regularly find bird carcasses that have ingested large amounts of this excess plastic.
It’s easy to find pictures of this on Google, so when you see those pictures, pay attention to the things you see in the bird’s stomachs—notice the things we use every day. Notice the lighters, bottle caps, small toys, toothbrushes, and odd bits of plastic. When you make efforts to reduce waste and plastic then you help reduce the amount of plastic that can end up in stomachs of albatross or around the necks of Hawaiian monk seals. And keep in mind, that when you make simple lifestyle changes those changes become approachable to other people. People see you reusing shopping bags or bringing your own mug to a coffee shop and they notice. Some people will follow in your footsteps.
There is always more you can do and ways to help the environment, but if you really want to know how you can help support places like Kure, my advice is to start small. When you change everyday habits in small ways you help Kure and every other island like it. It is important to remember to view Kure in a global context, and not just as a solitary atoll in the middle of the ocean.