According to a newly-published study, lead-based paint from buildings and soils on Sand Island, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument is poisoning up to 7 percent of Laysan Albatross chicks to the extent that, if unaddressed, the bird's entire population could be reduced by as much as 16 percent.
"This is a tragedy in the making for this great seabird unless the government cleans up the lead that has been left behind on that island," said Anna Weinstein, Audubon California's seabird conservation program coordinator. "This situation is particularly troubling in light of the progress we've made in recent years protecting foraging and breeding habitat for the Laysan Albatross, which has given it a real chance to flourish."
Audubon California, along with the National Audubon Society and the American Bird Conservancy, this week are asking the Administration to budget funds necessary to remediate lead on the Midway Atoll. Audubon California has made conservation of the Laysan Albatross a priority because it is an important visitor to California waters.
The Laysan Albatross typically ranges across the entire Northeast Pacific Ocean, from Alaska to Hawaii to Mexico. It can live to be 60 years old. With a wingspan of almost seven feet, the Laysan Albatross is one of only two species of albatrosses that breeds on U.S. soil. Midway Atoll is a vital breeding colony for the bird, supporting 71 percent of the global population.
The species is listed on the Audubon Watchlist as being of the most immediate conservation concern, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature has labeled it "vulnerable to extinction" due to the impact of high seas longline fishing. Lead contamination on Midway Atoll has long been known to be a significant threat, but the extent of the problem hasn't been known until the recent study.
On Sand Island, Midway Atoll, some Laysan albatrosses nest within 5 meters of the nearly 100 buildings contaminated with lead-based paint. The recent study, published by Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, shows that lead contamination is having significant, negative long-term effects on this special status seabird. Up to 7 percent of chicks fail to fledge each year, suffering from a condition of peripheral neuropathy called droopwing, which means they will never fly, and will die when their parents stop feeding them at the end of the breeding season.
"Lead poisoning could be killing up to 10,000 chicks per year, and it's affecting the long-term survival of the Laysan Albatross," said Finkelstein.
The study concluded that the death rates in Laysan Albatross chicks will have a population-level impact, predicting that by 2060 the lead on Midway Atoll would be responsible for a reduction in the global population of 16 percent, or 190,000 individuals. Conversely, removing lead-based paint now would result in up to 360,000 more birds by 2060, substantially bolstering the global population and buffering the species against the other threats it faces.
"This is more than just a threat that we have to deal with," said Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation for the National Audubon Society. "This is an opportunity to give a significant boost to the Laysan Albatross, one of the world's most impressive birds."
About Audubon California
Audubon California is building a better future for California by bringing people together to appreciate, enjoy and protect our spectacular outdoor treasures. With more than 50,000 members in California and an affiliated 48 local Audubon chapters, Audubon California is a field program of the National Audubon Society. Learn more at www.ca.audubon.org.