Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is the single largest conservation area in America, and one of the world’s largest marine conservation areas. It encompasses 139,797 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and it was established in 2006 by Presidential proclamation. Part of the monument is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Three million seabirds representing 21 species live on these islands. It was here that Hawaii received the largest recorded wave of the tsunami.
Midway includes three islands: Sand, Eastern, and Spit, and they were hit by three successive waves; the highest was approximately 4.9 feet. The waves overwashed 15 acre Spit Island completely and covered 20% of the 1,117 acres of Sand Island and 60% of the 366 acres of Eastern Island.
I spoke to Barry Stieglitz, Project Leader for the Hawaiian and Pacific Islands National Wildlife Refuges, on the phone about the impact of the tsunami on Hawaii. Originally from Florida, he’s worked there for six years, and his passion and love for the land, its wildlife, and its people was clear.
Matador: What’s the situation at the refuge?
Biologists on the island are working on damage assessment. The albatross are the most numerous species here and what Midway is known for. Midway is a National Wildlife Refuge now because it’s a significant area for nesting Laysan and black-footed albatross. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands hold 98% of the world’s population of these albatrosses.
Matador: What bird populations were present and use this area for habitat?
Four species were nesting at this time of year. Bonin petrel are ground nesters that dig burrows in the sand. So every area that was inundated, those nests were lost. [Estimated numbers of bonin petrel losses are in the thousands.]
Three species of albatross were on island, including one nesting pair of the endangered short-tailed albatross. This one pair on Midway is the first documented pair to breed outside of Japan ever. There has been a short-tailed albatross visiting midway for about a decade. Two years ago they courted but didn’t lay an egg. And it was very significant that they laid an egg this year.
The chick was washed about 100 feet away from the nest by the tsunami, and then placed back into its nest by the refuge biologist. We haven’t seen the adults again. All three species still need to be fed by their parents. This chick could be in trouble. We might take matters into our own hands.[Another famous albatross is Wisdom, over 60 years old, and the oldest known wild bird in the world. While her fate was unknown when I spoke to Stieglitz on March 18, on March 21, the Fish and Wildlife Service reported Wisdom had returned to feed her chick.]
Researchers count all the albatross nests every year. 482,909 pairs of Laysan albatross and 28,281 pairs of black-footed albatross were at Midway before the tsunami. There were 1,498 Laysan nests and 22 black-footed albatross nests on Spit Island and only four chicks remain there. Birds will lay one egg only each year, and they will not lay more than one egg a year. These chicks are gone.[Of the albatross population, an estimated 110,000 chicks and 2,000 adults were lost.]
Matador: What was the rescue response to the tsunami?
After events like this, everybody pitches in and does what needs to be done. The first job was basically triage: finding the living birds that are entrapped or out of their element. Some birds were partially buried. Adult albatross land on the water, but if the wingtips are wet, they can’t take off again. Water-logged birds were pulled out of the water. A visitor group on the island that was on a natural history tour pitched in to help Refuge staff free around 300 birds.
Three Hawaiian green turtles were washed onto Eastern Island by the huge wave, but they were returned alive to the ocean.
Matador: What’s the impact of this disaster on the birds?
Wildlife biologists generally deal with wildlife populations [as compared to individuals]. We may on occasion take more extreme measures in terms of looking after certain animals. We haven’t been very concerned about this event because these populations of animals have evolved in areas that have volcanic action and tsunamis.
What’s different now is that we have fishing vessels out long-lining catching albatrosses: they’ll take the bait on the hook. Now at Midway, we have dogs and cats and rats and all of these species that are not native, and they decimate the natural populations of animals.
Then there’s this whole big cloud of global climate change and this is a fairly low island, about 18 feet. What does that do to the edges of the island? Will the waves start eroding? What about ocean acidification? By itself [this event] probably wouldn’t be insurmountable. But in tandem with all of these other stresses, it’s hard to know.
Matador: Was this the worst place affected in Hawaii?
There are places in the main islands that had damage. In terms of natural areas, from what I have personally heard, Midway probably had the worst toll.
Laysan island had a field camp there and it was evacuated. It’s likely that there will be thousands and thousands of chicks that were lost there as well. We’re not expecting better news.
Matador: What is the impact on other threatened or endangered species in the area?
We haven’t found any dead ones [endangered Hawaiian monk seals and Hawaiian green turtles]. A relatively few amount of deaths of monk seals could have a greater impact on the overall population. National Marine and Fishery Service will overfly all of the beaches where the animals haul out.
Matador: What’s the next step?
We’re coming out of the triage stage where we’ve found the animals that are entrapped, and we’re trying to figure out what we’ve lost. Some habitat impacts that we’re locating at include the Laysan ducks, since they need freshwater. Some artificial freshwater ponds were filled up with albatross carcasses, and the staff are working to clear those out.
A lot of the other areas, because the native vegetation isn’t really tall trees, weren’t necessarily very impacted. But we’ll have to watch for the non-native animals and plants, because there are no native predators. We want to ensure these areas that were scoured by the tsunami don’t erupt in non-native plants.
The Northwestern Hawaiian islands are sacred to the Hawaiian people, equivalent of a heaven, the place to which souls depart after death. When you talk about doing natural resource conservation, you can’t separate the native Hawaiian culture and the natural resources.
Learn How to Help the Earthquake and Tsunami Victims in Japan.