Trouble on Albatross Island

How paint from an abandoned Navy base is killing the albatross


In the video, a mottled Laysan albatross chick waddles slowly in a circle, clacking its beak angrily at the camera. Its scruffy brown wings hang limply at each side, occasionally fluttering and dragging in the soil while the young bird struggles to defend itself from the perceived threat. Around its gray, webbed feet, tiny white flecks dot the ground.

“Paint chips,” pronounces University of California assistant researcher Myra Finkelstein, the woman behind the camera, now watching the video on her home PC. “Lead-based paint chips cover the ground in a lot of places. It’s real easy for the young birds to ingest them.”

Soon the chick will be dead. The debilitating neurological disease “droopwing” has already sickened its brain and left its wings paralyzed. If the disease itself doesn’t kill it, infected wounds from broken wings or starvation once its parents migrate most certainly will. For Finkelstein, the bird’s plight isn’t an isolated incident but a familiar scene she’s watched unfold thousands of times on the Pacific islands of Midway.

In a 2003 research paper, she showed that paint chips from an abandoned U.S. Navy base on one of the islands are directly responsible for an outbreak of droopwing. And now, her latest study, published in the science journal Animal Conservation, shows the disease causing a substantive drop in Laysan population worldwide, and has inspired the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for not adequately protecting the threatened seabird.

“Myra’s research showed that up to 10,000 chicks are dying on Midway every year,” says Shaye Wolf, staff biologist with the CBD who said the group filed a notice of intent to sue the USFWS, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources on Feb. 1. “That’s not acceptable. We’re filing suit to start an immediate cleanup of the contamination on Midway so that thousands more birds don’t die from lead poisoning. USFWS has stood by, while there is an immediate solution to the problem: clean up the paint.”

Located about 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu and best known as the site of the decisive 1942 victory by the U.S. Navy over the Japanese, Midway Atoll has a total area of only 2.5 square miles, but is the breeding home of roughly 500,000 pairs of Laysan albatrosses, 71 percent of the worldwide population. The birds are known for their gregarious personalities, brilliant white and charcoal feathers, and dark “eye-shadow” markings. They were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s but have made a near recovery and are now listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Laysans join 18 other protected bird species on the islands, including the world’s second largest breeding population of black-footed albatrosses, and add up to roughly 2 million nesting seabirds that make their home on Midway. The island itself, by way of the Naval Air Facility Midway base, was an important refueling stop for ships coming to and from Japan, but was largely abandoned after WW II and officially closed in 1993. With the closure of the base, the U.S. Navy turned control of Midway over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, effectively passing the buck in terms of cleaning up the toxic mess left behind by the aging NAF buildings.

John Klavitter, the co-author of Finkelstein’s latest paper, is also a deputy refuge manager with the USFWS and is stationed at Midway today. “We only receive so much funding to clean up the buildings. And it’s very expensive work,” Klavitter says. “The good news is that in 2004 [after Finkelstein’s initial research], we started to receive funding to remove paint from the buildings. We haven’t cleaned up the contaminated soil yet, though. Right now the eggs are just starting to hatch. As the chicks grow, they will start to pick up the lead paint and we’ll start seeing the first signs of droopwing in April. They’ll be dead by June or July.”

Currently, 24 of the 95 lead-based-paint coated buildings on Sand Island have been stripped and cleaned and 10 more are slated for cleanup this year. The cleanup plan, however, does not extend beyond 2010. And Finkelstein says she hopes the CDB lawsuit will help change that.

“These birds need help now,” she says. “It’s a fixable problem, just not an easy one.”

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